Posts Tagged ‘Bob Blumenthal’

BDJF: talking with bob, part II

June 11, 2011

(This is the second part of a two-part article about the conversation I had with Burlington Discover Jazz Festival critic-in-residence Bob Blumenthal on Friday, June 10, 2011. Here’s the first part.)

Bob and I continued talking for quite a while after the video had stopped rolling, covering topics including Coltrane, Myra Melford, and the age-old connection between visual art and music. As someone who’s studied both, the interwoven (and wholly inter-dependent!) nature of the arts has always fascinated me. And it’s a subject Bob himself has raised a number of times over the years, most notably in the listening session he led a couple of years ago on Ornette Coleman’s landmark 1958 album The Shape of Jazz to Come (which does not have especially notable cover art, but rather the musical sensibilities in the album itself mirror the explosive visual art of that era) and at this festival’s “Meet the Artist” educational session on June 3rd in a discussion about Miles Davis’ 1970 album Bitches Brew (with iconic art work by Mati Klarwein).

We also talked about Bob’s collaboration with photographer John Abbott, the new book Saxophone Colssus: A Portrait of Sonny Rollins. “John got the ball rolling on the project,…” Bob began – and he went on to describe how the project evolved to become the glossy, 160-page volume that was released on its subject’s 80th birthday last September.

It’s not the only book written about the sax legend, so I was curious about what Bob wanted people to take away from this one – what this book offers that’s unique on the subject. The answer came immediately: “To me Rollins was not only right from the outset one of my top 2-3 musicians, he was a role model for me. He was a role model for me and I wasn’t even a musician.”

When it comes to Sonny Rollins’ relationship with both Bob and the photographer John Abbott, it’s both musical and personal. That’s evident right from the outset, in the introduction paragraphs written by each of them. That sensibility carries through the rest of the book as well, with the relation of story after first-hand story, and in intimate images that capture Rollins at home, traveling, signing autographs, and practicing his instrument outside of his home studio.

Keep in mind as you leaf through the book the insight that Bob shared about its stunning photographs: the ones Abbott is especially pleased with are the shots taken off-stage in concert, as the camera captures Rollins making eye contact with the other musicians in the band. Every photo in the book is a product of long experience and no small measure of talent, to be sure, but as any seasoned photographer can tell you, at least 90% of getting any great shot is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. That proves to be true even for someone as experienced and familiar with his subject as Abbott: these live concert shots are a real catch!

Bob said he was hoping to get a book proposal written while visiting Burlington this week, but as often happens during the Jazz Festival the time just…melted away. As a future project, he’s interested in writing about how the LP record really defined an era in recorded music, and culture in general. Along those lines, if you’re going to be in the Boston area between now and Labor Day he highly recommends including a stop at the ICA on the waterfront to visit the temporary exhibit, The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl.

You can also see Bob’s work in the nine online essays he’s written for the PBS Freedom Riders series website.

It’s been another great jazz festival this year, brimming with countless memorable experiences in both music and learning. Future festivals have every opportunity to be equally as meaningful as long as they continue to encourage curiosity and thoughtful discussion of the art in sessions with people who share Bob Blumenthal’s passion for this special music.

Still curious? Here’s more:

  • Interview with Bob Blumenthal and John Abbott

Big thanks to Paula at the Flynn Center for opening the Flynn Space on short notice and providing Bob and me a quiet place to have our talk yesterday afternoon.

BDJF: talking with bob, part I

June 11, 2011

Bob Blumenthal and his new book on Sonny Rollins

Yesterday afternoon I caught up with Bob Blumenthal for a conversation about his career, his new book, and his 10+ years as the jazz critic in residence at the annual Discover Jazz Festival, underway right now in downtown Burlington.

I’ve been attending the sessions he’s hosted at the Jazz Festival since 2005, shortly after I moved to Vermont. The years have offered a richness of personal anecdotes and insight into artists including Sonny Rollins, Sidney Bechet, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, and many more jazz personalities than I can begin to list here.

You have a pressing question about something you heard, or an artist whose music you’ve just discovered? Ask Bob. You want to float some theory you’ve developed about Coltrane’s second quartet, or share the incredulity about that thing Ornette did with his solo in Buckminster Fuller? Again, talk to Bob.

He’s patient, in radio interviewing terms someone we would describe as “a good listener”. He’s gracious and genuine, encouraging all pedigrees of musical opinion without imposing his own judgment because, as he well knows, such authority has the potential to unintentionally shut down a conversation cold. And he’d much rather have that conversation, whatever the course or the outcome.

Bob Blumenthal has been writing about jazz since his college days in the late ’60s. In talking to him I still caught some of his wonder at being able to make a career doing something he’d loved from such a young age. At first he was on a different career path, which included law school and a year working in a private firm…here’s the rest of that story, and a lot more:

* Ed note: our conversation began with a quote I shared with Bob from Terry Barrett’s excellent book, Criticizing Art. In the opening chapter Barrett quotes several art critics talking about why they do what they do. I read Robert Rosenblum’s thought on the subject: “You presumably write about works of art because you love them. I don’t write out of hate. I write out of love, and that’s what I think criticism should primarily be.”

(The second part of this article is here.)

BDJF: jazz masters

June 5, 2011

NEA Jazz Master Dan Morgenstern

Dan Morgenstern is an eight-time Grammy winner for his work on album notes such as Art Tatum’s God is in the House (1973, Morgenstern’s first Grammy) and, most recently for the 2010 anthology, The Complete Louis Armstrong Decca Sessions [1935-1946].

Today in a 2pm talk presented by the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, the esteemed NEA Jazz Master talked about his life and many rich experiences with the music and musicians over the last several decades.

Morgenstern was born in Germany and spent his young life in Austria, Denmark, and Sweden before moving to the US in 1947. “As you know,” he began his talk, “I started out in some people call ‘the other side of the pond’ “.  He recalled his young “lightbulb” moment being a Fats Waller concert his mother took him to in Copenhagen. “Fats had those eyebrows – plus he was singing in English. I couldn’t understand most of what he said but the message came across.”

He said he began seriously collecting jazz records at age 15, during his school years away from home: “Sweden was very jazz-minded, there was a lot of jazz on  the radio.” Another formative experience came late in 1946 when an American jazz band came to visit Copenhagen – the first, since the end of the second World War. Don Redman was the bandleader of a group that also included a very young hotshot pianist…named Billy Taylor. Shortly after that memorable concert, Morgenstern moved to the US. He was 18 years old. And, yes, there’s a good quote about that too: “Most people when they come to New York want to see Times Square. I wanted to see 52nd Street.” The heart of Manhattan jazz was calling to him, even as a teenager.

Hot Lips Page at Harlem's Apollo Theater - photo by William P. Gottlieb

New York’s jazz scene did not disappoint, it didn’t take the young man long to establish a friendship with trumpeter and bandleader Hot Lips Page, by then a fixture of the city’s club scene. “Hot Lips knew Harlem like the back of his hand. He knew all of the music places, both legal and…after hours.”

The whole afternoon went like that, with Morgenstern relating story after interesting first-hand story about the people, places and times that form the very foundation of jazz music and culture. He’s been there in one way or the other for it all since the 1940s. Another good one was the story of his first introduction to Louis Armstrong. It was backstage, in Armstrong’s dressing room, with several other people in the room. Someone handed Armstrong “a beautifully wrapped rose, with the message that it was a gift from (the actress) Tallulah Bankhead. He extracted from it a perfectly rolled joint.”

It was also a real treat at the end of the talk for Morgenstern to be joined by Discover Jazz Festival critic-in-residence Bob Blumenthal for a Q&A session, wherein Blumenthal shared many of his own charming anecdotes and recollections.

Among the best was his first encounter with Charles Mingus, as a young reporter hoping to interview the legendary bassist/composer/bandleader. Blumenthan recalled entering the Boston club where Mingus and his band were reported to be rehearsing for their upcoming week-long engagement. “I walked in and saw the band sitting at the bar. So I walked up to Mingus and very timidly tapped him on the elbow and said, “Mr. Mingus I’d like to interview you.” Mingus turned around and snapped, “SHIT man, can’t you see we’re rehearsing?” ” Which would be a pretty hilarious story in itself, even if it stopped there.

But it didn’t.

Turns out the band had been talking over the the new charts they were learning, a process of transformation that Blumenthal stuck around and witnessed for the next several hours. He now describes that afternoon as one of the top five musical experiences of his life. And, at the end when it was over? He walked out of the club “with an aura around my head, the kind you get sometimes with an experience like that” and just a moment later he felt the tap on his shoulder. It was Mingus: “aren’t you the young man who wanted the interview? Do you still want to talk to me?”


And, in a final revealing moment, Blumenthal asked what made Morgenstern want to become a writer. The answer took some time to unfold but it soon came out that he was disenchanted with much of the existing writing on the music he loved. “To some extent I started writing about jazz because I hated so much of what I was reading.”

I spoke with Mr. Morgenstern after the discussion and he mentioned he had another obligation and would be needing to leave Vermont in the next day or so. It was his first time visiting the Discover Jazz Festival, and he mentioned he’d love to come back next year and plan on spending more time. I really hope he does.

Bob Blumenthal will be here all week leading the various “Meet the Artist” sessions tomorrow (@5:30pm with saxophonist JD Allen); Tuesday (@5:30pm with vocalists Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan); Thursday (@5:30pm with pianist/composer/bandleader Myra Melford); and Friday (@6:30pm with bandleader/percussionist Poncho Sanchez and trumpeter Terence Blanchard).

Dan Morgenstern and Bob Blumenthal (they're not really doing the hand jive, it just looks like it.)

like sonny

June 18, 2010

The week after the Discover Jazz Festival is always such a let down. There’s so much, for such a concentrated time – and then it’s all gone.

I’m consoling myself this week with some of the photos taken during the 10 days of the Fest, catching up on everyone else’s blogs reviewing the shows, and listening to recordings I’ve recently had my ears re-opened to, like Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge and Easy Star All Stars’ Dub Side of the Moon. It’s been fun.

In Bob Blumenthal’s Meet the Artist session with Sonny Rollins last Friday night (was that really only a week ago!?), Mr. Rollins was asked by an audience member about his relationship with John Coltrane. “Ah, I knew I’d get the Coltrane question!” was how his answer began, with chuckles from the audience. He went on to say that he considered himself and Trane “good friends, I would say we were very good friends”.

If you’re in Fest withdrawal like me this week, here’s a little story that will go some way to help by offering a deeper answer to that “Coltrane question”. (You’ll just have to get past the pretentious way the filmmaker says “saxophonist” – saxOFF-onist. He’s not English. So I don’t care where he got it from, it sounds pretentious. Otherwise – a great story, well, told.)

discover jazz – day 8

June 12, 2010

OK, so, Friday. It has been a week now since the Discover Jazz Festival kicked off with Arturo Sandoval’s brassy, sassy, blazing opening salvo. In the last seven days the waterfront has buzzed with soul, funk, and folks clad in more raingear than sunglasses. We’ve Met the Artists, stayed up much too late (every night), and experienced the creation of art in real time with the lively JazzLab sessions.

What’s left? Well, concerts with two jazz legends, Jim Hall and Sonny Rollins (concerts which also include future legends like Joey Baron, Russell Malone, Scott Colley, and Greg Osby); a concert with a rock legend, Levon Helm; and an evening of reggae with the Easy Star All-Stars and the Wailing Souls. And all of the stuff happening in restaurants and other venues on Church Street and elsewhere. And don’t forget the Other Music Festival has its final show tonight too. Not bad.

Friday afternoon was the final Meet the Artist session, with Sonny Rollins and resident critic Bob Blumenthal. It would get to music and Rollins’ history soon, but the first question was more personal. Rollins: “What’s a day like? It’s easier to say what I don’t do. I don’t have any hobbies. I don’t cook – I do my little vegetables or whatever…and I practice. That’s about it.”

Rollins also confessed to still being addicted to “noise in the background” ( a really funny statement for a jazz front man) so he keeps sports radio on for company each day.

I knew that Rollins was from New York City, but I found it interesting that the first music he listened to was Fats Waller, on records and on the radio. Fats Waller:  the ace protégé of James P. Johnson, the “father of the stride piano” whose own history is so closely tied to New York City and the blossoming Harlem jazz scene of the 1920s and 1930s. Interesting.

And it turns out that Louis Jordan was the reason the seven year-old Rollins implored his parents to get him his first sax. (An alto.)

On his young life in Harlem, Rollins said: “The Apollo Theater was my cathedral – and my university, when I got old enough.” He went there every week to catch everything from movies to live music and other theatrical performances. He attributes his lifelong love of melody to those early movie experiences.

Other random Rollins thoughts:

  • “I was destined to be a leader and do my own thing. My music is so singular I don’t think I can fit in with a lot of people.”
  • “I still practice today because I have the same feeling (of wanting to learn). Practice doesn’t stop just because you put out a few records.”
  • On composing: “There are melodies going around in my head all the time. Like today. It all came about in a very natural, organic way.”
  • “I always felt I was destined to be a musician.  I turned out to be right.”
  • On transcribing other musicians’ solos to learn from them: (and this is an UNDERstatement!) “I never was really good with duplication.”
  • “I’m a pretty self-deprecating person. I know I have a lot to learn.”
  • “Transition is part of everyone’s life.”
  • On Coltrane: “I knew I would get the Coltrane question! He was like a minister, a great musician. As a person he was a beautiful person. We visited each other, spent time together. I would say we were very good friends.”
  • And, finally, on Bob’s question “What was it about your playing that drove you to taking a sabbatical?” – Rollins: “You can not listen to what people say if you know differently.”

Rollins & Blumenthal

Near the end of the generous session, when the discussion was opened for audience comments, Rollins was starting to answer a question when he unexpectedly smiled and said, “You know I hope I’m not boring you. I’m beginning to bore myself with this conversation.”

Like the best of jazz players, Bob Blumenthal jumped in without missing a beat. Laughing, he said “So much for “that’s a good question”!” Really funny moment, as a veteran interviewer speaking with a veteran interviewee.

One of the nicest moments of the evening happened at the end of the talk. Bob, seated, was wrapping up the session with a few announcements including the fact that this year’s appearance at Discover Jazz was his 10th anniversary in the role. Sonny Rollins and the rest of the house were already on their feet since the session was concluding, and the Saxophone Colossus joined the enthusiastic, grateful crowd in clapping at Bob’s quiet announcement.

Right on cue with his hallmark quick wit once again, Bob popped off with: “I never thought I’d see the day I’d be getting a standing ovation from Sonny Rollins!”

Kudos, Bob, and a big thanks for ten years of sharing your humor, curiosity, and your deep experience to encourage everyone to enjoy jazz like you do. It wouldn’t be Discover Jazz without you.

From there it was on to the Jim Hall/Scott Colley/Joey Baron/Greg Osby concert at 8. Understated, with beautiful flashes of color. In particular, Hall’s hilarious arrangement of Benny Golson’s ballad Whisper Not (punctuated raucously by the occasional rhythmic group “HEY!” – really fun), his tribute to Sonny Rollins with Rollins’ own composition Sonnymoon for Two; Chelsea Bridge (featuring Osby in a hauntingly subdued, gorgeous solo) and the finale, another Rollins classic St. Thomas. Sweet.

Can’t wait to hear Jim Hall sitting in with Sonny tonight to revisit some of the great moments from their iconic 1962 recording together, The Bridge.

discover jazz – day 2

June 5, 2010

Allen Toussaint has been playing music since he was gradeschool age. He has been writing music since around age 12 – his first original was a duet, inspired by the two trombones he had heard on the radio in a version of Gershwin’s Love Walked In.

With decades of history, experience and untold influence to explore, where does one even start an interview with him?

At the beginning, of course.

In this evening’s Meet the Artist session with Festival resident critic Bob Blumenthal, Toussaint was asked when music first became part of his life. He recalled, “someone brought a piano over for my sister to play. We didn’t know we were poor. All kids are rich.”

Toussaint grew up in New Orleans listening to the radio. Attentively, apparently, and this early experience offers an unexpectedly revealing insight into the diversity and complexity of his performing range. Did he have favorite pianists, among the ones heard in that formative radio listening time?  “Yes, everyone. I didn’t know there were specialists. I listened to hillbilly music, classical, opera…I thought everyone could play everything.”

So he emulated that misperception, teaching himself to play in all the styles he was hearing on the radio with special emphasis on the styles and players he liked the most. “Boogie-woogie caught me early. Pinetop (Perkins) and Professor Longhair – I didn’t want to be like him, I wanted to be him. I love all the pianists I’ve ever heard. I was a Liberace fan, too. I thought Liberace was killer!”

On composing, Toussaint humorously confessed having mixed feelings about the computer program he uses occasionally to assist with composition. “Things always look good on the computer. But we all know how that is. Trash in, trash out.You can come back to something a week later and ask, ‘who sneaked in here and did that!?’ ” He continued, “You know we all have wishbones and feathers waiting around to become a chicken.”

Clarinetist/sax man Don Byron, a collaborator on The Bright Mississippi, also joined today’s Meet the Artist session. He talked a bit about some of his first musical experiences growing up in New York City, surrounded by fellow clarinetists like (now bassist) Marcus Miller. Byron laughed, noting how most of the other musicians had eventually gravitated to other instruments, while he “ended up staying on clarinet like a fool.” It’s a joke, but role models were few and far between in popular culture at the time. “I want everyone to know I always wanted to be on the Lawrence Welk show. It was the only clarinet on TV!”

Byron also had a few thoughts to share about the elder statesman Toussaint. “There are all kinds of musicians I play with but only a few of them are architects. Allen Toussaint is an architect. Out of respect I put on a shirt with a collar to play with him.”

The two men have at least one common element in their musical backgrounds – classical music. Toussaint’s mom and grandmother loved it, and they often listened together to opera on Sundays on the radio. Byron emphasized his lifelong experience playing classical music, starting with his first paid gig in a performance of a classical oratorio – Haydn or Mozart, Byron couldn’t recall which one. His compensation for the engagement, however, was still a sharp memory: $20.

Byron attributed his attraction to Latin music to the transition his NY City neighborhood underwent when he was still quite young. As the white population moved out, it was replaced by Dominicans. They had bands, but no charts. Byron made some income writing out charts for the groups, and it’s one of the many musical dialects that have colored his music. His omniverous musical appetite has also ventured into a long relationship with klezmer music, starting with a run in the Klezmer Conservatory Band waaaaay back in 1980. There’s some serious history here.

In the outstanding concert that followed the interview session, one of the highlights was a piano montage near the end that playfully ranged from snippets of Chopin and Grieg, to Chatanooga Choo-Choo and finally a soulful, upbeat version of Steve Goodman’s classic train song, City of New Orleans where the whole band kicked back in. Whether Toussaint or Byron, one thing I learned for sure today is that curiosity will take you far in the world and assure that the mind and spirit just keep on growing.

At 72, Toussaint has enjoyed a long, successful career as a producer, composer, and player. Bob Blumenthal noted that Toussaint’s role on his latest album, The Bright Mississippi, was focused on interpreting the songs in the collection suggested by producer Joe Henry, rather than playing his own originals. What kind of mental shift was necessary to approach a whole album of other peoples’ material? Toussaint response summarized a lifetime of diverse musical interests and pursuits: “If you just play the song, whoever you are should come along with it.”


Michael Chorney’s Sextet opened the show last night, seven members strong with the addition of the guest trombonist Andy Moroz (and eight with vocalist Miriam Bernardo who joined the group to sing a Sun Ra tune).  There were memorable moments throughout, but the highlight had to be  Kurt Weill’s smoky, syncopated Tango Ballade from the Threepenny Opera featuring hand-muted trumpet and a lovely doubled cello/violin duet passage. I also really enjoyed Chorney’s original, Non Nun, so named, Chorney said, “because they both have three words.”  Fun, and always original – the Sextet/Septet/Octet offered a fresh opening for the night’s concert.

(as seen on Church Street this afternoon)

BDJ Festival, day 4: jazz à la Caracas,

June 9, 2009
McPherson's kit

McPherson's kit

One of the special things about Burlington’s Discover Jazz Festival is the educational sessions that fill out the schedule, along with all of the concerts and musical events.

The Festival’s longstanding artist-in-residence is the renowned veteran jazz critic Bob Blumenthal. He usually leads four or five “Meet the Artist” sessions, and the latest one was this evening with Venezuelan pianist Luis Perdomo in advance of his 8:30pm show.

As a student of jazz piano legend Roland Hanna, the richest and most personal stories Perdomo had to tell centered around their warm – if challenging – relationship. Perdomo summed it up by saying, “he never heard me play my best. He always found out what I couldn’t do, and made me do it.”

In fact that’s how their lessons together began: Hanna told Perdomo to “play something. Pick a ballad, anything you know.” Perdomo chose the standard, I Fall In Love Too Easily. But before Perdomo started to play, Hanna added “now play that like Jelly Roll Morton. In the key of E Major.” Perdomo sat silent, bewildered. Hanna said “You can’t? Then you don’t know it.”

At another lesson, Hanna brought in a Scriabin score (“you know, where the whole page is black”, Perdomo said, laughing). “He made me play it all very slowly, and you know sometimes that’s the hardest of all because you lose all meter, all rhythm, and it seems to last forever.”

Meet the Artist: Bob Blumenthal with Luis Perdomo

Meet the Artist: Bob Blumenthal with Luis Perdomo

Like many relationships the reward was not always immediately apparent. But the most telling detail came in Perdomo’s description of his graduation from Queens College, where he received his Masters. The day of the ceremony, Hanna told him “I know you are graduating but you still need to come to your lessons.” And Hanna continued to give Perdomo lessons for the next year, gratis. “He never charged me, he just wanted me to study what he was teaching me.”

Perdomo’s trio (with bassist Hans Glawischnig and percussionist Eric McPherson) performed tonight at the FlynnSpace.

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