The Unpopularity of Jazz: On the 90s Shift

Incredible interview by Rachel Olding with Branford Marsalis. The conclusion:

The more jazz has changed, the more Marsalis has gravitated towards classical music. It’s the reason he moved his young family to Durham, an artistic city in North Carolina, 10 years ago; the New York scene wasn’t inspiring anymore. (He’d also had enough of “New York living”, of five-year-olds calling adults by their first name).

Today’s jazz musicians are too mathematical and wonkish, he says. Jazz clubs are half empty, only frequented by other musicians who appreciate each other’s showmanship. Listeners need music degrees to understand what they’re playing. The music has become rigid. Improvisation is mostly over-rehearsed regurgitation.

“[I’m often asked] the question, ‘Jazz is so unpopular, why do you think that is?’ And the answer is simple: the musicians suck,” he says with typical subtlety.

He says the shift started in the ’90s and I can’t help but think the Marsalis family was not immune. While they still wield incredible clout, nothing can compare to the two decades in which Wynton and his siblings seemed to rule the jazz universe. In 2003, the music critic David Hajdu stumbled upon Wynton playing as a sideman with a band in a near-empty jazz club in New York, and wrote a piece in the Atlantic (tartly titled “Wynton’s Blues”) hypothesising that Wynton’s stifling orthodoxy and nostalgia was partly to blame for both his and jazz’s dwindling relevance.

It’s nevertheless hard to see that Branford Marsalis is slowing down in any way. Not in the flood of opinions he wants to impart. Nor in his commitment to improving music or lifting standards. Not in the pace and scope of his work, nor with that bottle of red wine. And especially not with the tempo of Thelonius Monk.

Help us, O prog rock, you’re our only hope… 

Rush: The Animated Series

kmjz8lctraatpxzawyy5dr-970-80Take a look at the sample pages available: This Rush comic looks great.

It makes me think of a great idea, which Progarchy freely offers here: why doesn’t somebody make an animated cartoon about the adventures of the Rush trio?

What I have in mind is something with the great retro animation vibe of the Star Trek animated series. That would be the look and feel.

As for audio, every episode would end with a snippet of a Rush song playing as part of the concluding soundtrack, just like shows such as The Goldbergs or Schooled do in their own televised exercises in nostalgia.

The high concept for Rush: The Animated Series is that, one night, while recording tracks for the album A Farewell to Kings, a dimensional portal opens up as the harmonic frequency of one of their jam sessions bends space and time by resonating with the black hole in Cygnus X-1.

On the other side of the portal, the Rush dudes get to hop in a spaceship and go exploring different worlds in the multiverse. They get to do this in each episode, whenever one of their songs hits just the right note and unexpectedly opens the portal. Not only that, they can also use their spaceship to visit any time and place on Earth, so the story possibilities are endless.

The trick is: the spaceship is powered by Rush harmonic convergence music energy. So, whenever they are low and about to run out of fuel, they have to return to the studio and record another song. The process of songwriting and recording fuels up the spaceship again and the portal reopens.

The running joke could be: they write longer songs on purpose, because that makes the fuel tank fill up more. Also, replaying old songs works fine to open the portal and power the ship, but extra energy and wider travel is unleashed whenever a new track is created.

Rush should definitely get behind this idea. If you were retired rock stars, wouldn’t it be on your to-do list to star in your own sci-fi comedy Saturday morning cartoon? In any event, it is always possible for a motivated fan to create their own series. Prog on!

A Genesis Extravaganza: The Musical Box in Vancouver (April 9, 2019)

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The best part of the show was Act III. Acts I and II felt much less energetic than the actual Genesis originals, most of which I have heard the real Genesis play live. Out of that lot, “Lilywhite Lilith” came across the best.

Not until Act III did the band progressively pour it on, with more and more energy with each song, making the concert a consistent crescendo into the encore finale. My favorites were everything from “Can-Utility and the Coastliners” to the end.

Also, “Cinema Show” was so good that as result “Aisle of Plenty” felt especially emotionally moving as I pondered the magnificent artistic legacy of Genesis.

The band likes to sit down a lot, and has pretty given up on costumes, other than a leather jacket for Rael, and the fox head and red dress for the very end of “The Musical Box.” I was underwhelmed in Acts I and II but then Act III redeemed the evening for me, as they poured on the jets.

In the end, I am reminded just how great Genesis is and how unrepeatable they are, despite those who would try to imitate as best they can. It’s sincere flattery, but perhaps Andy Tillison summed it up best on the last track of The Tangent’s Proxy: all the other bands are skint.

Act I: The Wind’s Tail
In That Quiet Earth / Robbery, Assault, and Battery / Wot Gorilla?
Blood on the Rooftops
Dance on a Volcano
Entangled (Ending Part)
Los Endos

Act II: Broadway Melodies
Fly on a Windshield
Broadway Melody of 1974
In the Cage
Back in N.Y.C.
Hairless Heart
Counting Out Time
The Carpet Crawlers
Lilywhite Lilith
The Waiting Room (Ending Part)

Act III: Before The Ordeal
A Place to Call My Own
Time Table
Seven Stones
Can-Utility and the Coastliners
Looking for Someone
Firth of Fifth
After the Ordeal
The Cinema Show
Aisle of Plenty

Encore:
The Musical Box

Music Flies Over Borders

Lazuli 1
Lazuli – Prog’s joy bringers.

It’s five o’clock on an atypical Saturday in London, a day during which one million people have taken to the central city streets to protest about a political and democratic decision which threatens the entire nation, its relationship with Europe and indeed the whole world.

Discarded placards are stacked up against railings in Trafalgar Square, symbolic to a degree because of the history of the place.  There, on top of his high plinth, stands the British naval hero Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson, who was partly responsible for curtailing the expansive ambitions of French emperor, Napoleon Buonaparte.

So much has changed in the ensuing 214 years after the Battle of Trafalgar, the country now totally at war with itself over the European referendum,  the deadlock in the differing political ideologies causing fear, anxiety and confusion.

But tonight, in the city, there’s a far more discreet French invasion taking place in a subterranean corner of Soho, adjacent to the massive earthworks of the Crossrail train engineering project.

Jokingly, the band in question, the Gallic fivesome Lazuli think this incredible turn-out on the streets on London is for them. In a saner world, Lazuli would indeed be filling huge auditoriums. In these extraordinary circumstances however, it has taken them nearly four hours to navigate their way around motorways and roads into London to get to the venue.

With one of their staunchest fans, who took part in the day’s protest, in possession of a European Union flag, they are fully aware that they are among friends here at the Borderline, a popular if slightly claustrophobic music venue/nightclub, which has undergone a significant facelift since they were last here two years ago.

There’s around 160 in the venue tonight, a very healthy number considering a sizeable new prog festival is happening about a two and a half hour’s drive away and there are a couple of major gigs in town the following evening (Lifesigns and the Neal Morse Band).

This London date has been rescheduled from the previous autumn when the band embarked on a mini-tour of the UK, culminating in a triumphant third headlining appearance at the British flagship prog festival, Summer’s End.

Back under the tender loving care of tour manager, Nellie Pitts, a second show has been added the following night at Level III , another fascinating basement music venue located in the south-west English railway town of  Swindon.

But tonight’s is a completely different show to the ones delivered last autumn to promote their thoughtful, achingly lovely album Saison 8 (to reflect this being their eighth album). This is a two and a half hour celebration of their finest and most popular songs.

But first for those unfamiliar with Lazuli, this band is very much a family-centric enterprise, which began with brothers, the elvish Dominique and Claude Leonetti, whose base is just outside the southern French city of Nîmes.

Claude was the guitarist in the early incarnation of the band, but a motorcycle accident in the 1980s robbed him of the use of his left arm, rendering guitar playing impossible.

Prophetic

However, he had a prophetic dream about an instrument which would allow him to continue playing. And behold, the unique Léode (a combination of his second and first names) was created, a box of sonic programmable tricks – a cross between a guitar, synthesiser and musical saw – from which he can produce the most extraordinary effects, which gives the band their iconic original sound.

The present line-up has been together nearly a decade and represents a steady ascent in their popularity across Europe, notably Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with, alas, less recognition in their native France. The UK has also embraced them especially after they toured with one of their heroes, Fish, in the autumn of 2015, when the crowd reaction seemed to be along the lines of “What on earth was that!?”

An understandable reaction indeed to a band, influenced among others by the Beatles, Peter Gabriel and the inimitable Fish, who also appears on one of their albums. It might also be down to the exquisite sound and visual experience they provide so spectacularly.

Along with Claude’s Léode, Domi plays electric and acoustic guitars, one of which has been custom made by his son Elliot, again underlining the family connections. Domi’s distinct clear high register voice is effectively another instrument especially to the ears of non-French speakers who can concentrate on and marvel at his incredible perfect pitch.

Lazuli 3
The unique Léode and French horn.

You can find the expressive, animate multi-instrumentalist Romain Thorel on keyboards with added bass (there is no bass player in the band), drums and French horn, while the solidly reliable ‘timekeeper’ Vincent Barnavol takes care of drums, djembe and marimba. As for the flamboyantly dreadlocked Gédéric Byar, his guitar does all the talking with a little help from a screwdriver and a veritable battery of effects pedals.

Visually, the front three resemble the cast of an unwritten Lord of the Rings chapter, their extravagant hair tied up or braided, Domi sporting his customary plaited beard, costumes sombrely black with ‘aprons’ and bondage trousers included somewhere in the mix, while the clean-shaven, ever-smiling duo of Thorel and Barnavol make up the back line.

However, together, their live show pulsates with a transcendental energy seldom encountered on the world’s stages and the love they feel when they perform transmits directly to the audience. As I have said previously, they simply gather you up and take you on a magic carpet ride to their own musical universe.

Translation

Admittedly, the meanings of the songs probably get lost in translation, but as Domi once declared, “I have the soul of a Frenchman, so it would be very difficult to sing in English.” Their songs are full of imagery and metaphors which would not flow if imagined in English. But such is their humanistic view of the world, they are not afraid of tackling big subjects such as the environment, climate change, immigration, injustice and male violence against women.

For tonight’s show, it’s a walk-through Lazuli time (literally) to revisit some of their most popular songs from the past including the sublimely beautiful Cassiopée and the volcanic L’Abîme (The Abyss).

However, for your humble reviewer, two other “old” songs provide the highlights, one being the fabulously evocative 15 hr 40 (Twenty to Four) in which they perfectly capture the sound of a ticking clock locked in the moment of the hour. The following evening in Swindon, they meet the fan who originally asked them to put the song back in the show and duly dedicates it to him.

The other is Naif, a song from their first album Amnésie, which struck a chord when we first saw and fell in love with them in 2011 at the Summer’s End festival, but which Domi explains that he wrote when he was an idealistic youth, and probably still is. This is a particularly clever acoustically driven song on which Thorel crafts a regimented pattern of beats on a snare drum while Barnavol taps out the song’s underlying rhythm on his beat box. It still resonates as strongly as it did nearly eight years.

Despite his halting English, Domi has rehearsed his lines well enough to crack jokes about his recent bout of flu, which, unlike the true tenor tuning  made his voice sound like Barry White – which he then changes topically to British Prime Minister Theresa May when she lost her voice during a Brexit debate in Parliament.

He also sounds a more serious note when introducing Les Côtes, a song about the thousands of refugees fleeing conflict and seeking a better life arriving on the southern shores of Europe. “Without immigration, this stage would be empty”, Domi declares, he and brother Claude having Italian ancestry along with Byar’s North African roots.

There’s also an element of gravity to the haunting Les Sutures, a song all about finding each other and relating to one another “under all the sutures of our wounded souls”, whose drama comes when Barnavol begins a military drum beat that is then taken up by Domi and Thorel on a single snare drum mid-stage.

Les Malveillants is another show-stopping favourite, an angry song about malicious people and their evil intentions, which is the nearest they get to prog-metal, this being a full-on, no holds barred barrage of riffage from both guitars and Léode. It comes to a climax when Domi and Byar bravely jump off the stage into the audience and go walkabouts.

Lazuli 2
Head to head during Les Malveillants.

Bringing the show to a close, Les Courants Ascendants (The Updrafts) is one of those slow burning songs which suddenly ignites, Thorel going full throttle on the French horn as Byar’s fizzing fretwork suddenly morphs into a ringing, melodic riff, bringing the song to a rousing climax.

Conductors

As the band leaves the stage, the audience, who know this is far from the end, start singing back the riff and that’s the cue for Lazuli to return as crowd conductors, while Thorel on keyboards and Barnavol on drums duet on some jazzy impro work.

With the passing of this beautiful evening comes the passing of the seasons, Domi launching into the gorgeous Un Automne from Amnésie then brings their story right up to date with J’Attends Un Printemps (I Am Waiting For A Spring) from their Saison 8 album – very apt for a late day in March.

Finally, they regroup for their jaw-dropping finale, Nine Hands Around A Marimba – basically, the five of them playing together on just the one instrument, in which they improvise several familiar tunes, which, tonight include Solsbury Hill and Michelle – all delivered with some knockabout humour.

Lazuli 4
Nine Hands Around A Marimba.

It’s another phenomenal show from a band who are musical joy bringers. Their fraternal love and respect for each other as musicians and friends (there’s a song in the show called Mes amis, mes frères – My Friends, My Brothers – which sums this all up) is writ large throughout their shows.

Sadly, with the current political situation in the United Kingdom, there’s great uncertainty for bands like Lazuli and other foreign favourites such as the Franck Carducci Band as to how it will impact on future tours to these shores. Already, it is a huge logistical operation to bring their show across the Channel from the south of France and any subsequent red tape as a result of Britain’s drawn-out departure from the European Union could exacerbate this.

As Lazuli’s new tee-shirt slogan so perfectly says, “Music flies over borders”. For now, we can only wait with anticipation for the upcoming new album later this year, which Domi says is a very special one. Let’s hope they will be able to bring it to us live next year.

All photographs by Martin Reijman taken at Level III, Swindon, 24 March 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Concert: Nick Mason Pours Chicago a Saucerful

Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets, The Chicago Theatre, April 4, 2019.

“After twenty years, I got tired of waiting for the phone to ring.”

Always quick with a quip, drummer Nick Mason tossed off that one during the first lull in his new band’s voyage through Pink Floyd’s early catalog.  Dryly diplomatic and subtly duplicitous (it’s actually been 25 years since Mason last played in North America, 14 since the Live 8 Floyd reunion), it was nonetheless revealing.

In recent years, Roger Waters has trotted his favorite era of Floyd (first The Wall, then a Dark Side of the Moon through Animals-based set) around the globe; David Gilmour toured his solo album Rattle That Lock, then decided to auction off his guitar collection for charity, keeping the door firmly shut on nostalgia following Rick Wright’s passing.  Mason, on the other hand, has dug deep into the history of the band he co-founded — prepping the massive box set The Early Years with Gilmour, then working on the touring memorabilia exhibition Their Mortal Remains.   So when Blockheads guitarist Lee Harris and post-Waters Floyd bassist Guy Pratt suggested a group focusing on the pre-stardom Floyd repertoire, Mason was itching to give it a whirl.

It’s a great idea.  Freed from the expectation of playing the hits, Saucerful of Secrets dives headlong into a rich stream of psychedelia, prog and pastoral balladry, setting back the clock to when Pink Floyd’s audience had no idea what was coming next.  And there’s something for everybody here: trippy blues barrages “Interstellar Overdrive”, “Astronomy Domine” and “One of These Days”; the whimsical Syd Barrett-led singles “Arnold Layne” and “See Emily Play”, along with Barrett’s later, profoundly disturbing “Bike” and “Vegetable Man”; hushed, acoustic post-Barrett meditations like “If” and “Green Is the Colour”; the bludgeoning rock of “The Nile Song” and “Childhood’s End”; and extended free-form explorations of “Atom Heart Mother”, “Let There Be More Light” and “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”.

Tackling this wide range of material, the quintet was tight enough to keep the audience engaged, but loose enough to veer into clamorous group improvisation as the mood (frequently) struck them.  Pratt and rhythm guitarist Gary Kemp (best known as the main songwriter for Spandau Ballet) divvied up the lead vocals and drove the tunes forward, with Pratt cracking occasional jokes about absent Floyds during breaks; Harris spun off one obliquely creative solo after another on a bevy of guitars; Dom Beken captured Rick Wright’s spectrum of tasty keyboard colors and open chord voicings to perfection.

But ultimately, it was Mason’s show.  Sometimes damned with faint praise like “the best drummer for Pink Floyd,” his fine playing reminded me of Ringo Starr  (another criminally underrated drummer) onstage.  Self-deprecating about his lack of technique in interviews, Mason turns any limitations into assets by laying down an immovably solid beat, leaving plenty of space for his fellow players, and embellishing the grooves in simple, ear-catching ways (his malletwork on tom toms being the most famous example).   His reward?  Finally getting to play the gong on “Set The Controls for the Heart of the Sun” for this tour. (Mason’s spoken intro: “Roger Waters is one of my best friends, a brilliant musician, a brilliant songwriter — and not good at sharing.”)

So unlike later Pink Floyd tours, including The Division Bell outing I saw in 1994, Nick Mason’s Saucerful of Secrets isn’t about the spectacle (though the light show was fabulous), or the star power.  Rather, it’s about the music — and about the accomplished crew of players that bring these neglected Floyd gems alive in the moment, headed by the drummer who’s somehow become the most stalwart conservator of his band’s legacy.  For the 3,000 appreciative fans that rewarded Mason and his compatriots with a tumultuous standing ovation, that was enough.

Setlist:

  • Interstellar Overdrive
  • Astronomy Domine
  • Lucifer Sam
  • Fearless
  • Obscured by Clouds
  • When You’re In
  • Remember a Day
  • Arnold Layne
  • Vegetable Man
  • If
  • Atom Heart Mother/If (Reprise)
  • The Nile Song
  • Green Is the Colour
  • Let There Be More Light
  • Childhood’s End
  • Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
  • See Emily Play
  • Bike
  • One of These Days
  • A Saucerful of Secrets
  • Point Me at the Sky

— Rick Krueger