Monthly Archives: August 2010

Comments & Consequences

The brutal August heat is beginning to subside in Middle Georgia, but the rhetoric is heating up. On the 11th Hour’s website, the current cover story– which I blogged about on Friday — an interview with the so-called “hipsters” behind Macon’s grassroots music revival, drew a couple nasty comments from an anonymous, disgruntled local musician. The responses were equally heated, and within 24 hours a cross-section of Macon musicians and fans had weighed in.

I know what you’re thinking. What’s the big deal? An anonymous writer leaves a nasty comment — the quintessential, ubiquitous annoyance on the web. Normally I would agree, but the fact that it touched such a raw nerve here speaks to a number of larger issues.

My initial reaction was annoyance, and I think it came through in the comment I posted. Who was this person to attack people who were trying improve a struggling scene? Even if he does feel left out — for whatever reason — wouldn’t he be happy that something was happening, even if he didn’t like it? My feelings haven’t changed since then, but I’ve begun to see some of the complexities that are bubbling under the surface.

I spent Saturday night with Clark Bush at The 567 for a concert organized by TheBlueIndian.com, and at The Mellow Mushroom, where we saw Citizen Insane, a talented Macon-based rock band. Clark, along with a number of other musicians, writers and fans, has been instrumental in bringing innovative music back to Macon, contributing as a musician, producer, sound engineer, and as editor — along with Citizen Insane guitarist Shawn Williamson — of a zine covering the nascent scene, Macon Noise. If you haven’t heard the diverse music they’re producing, I urge you to download a free copy of the double-disc album Macon Noise Volume 1.

Clark’s reaction to the comments — online and in person — came off as a  mixture of anger, resignation and indifference. Hinting that he knew who the anonymous poster was, Clark dismissed him as a naysayer as he adjusted levels on the sound board at The 567. Apparently, the same person made hostile comments over a year ago in response to an 11th Hour cover story on Denny Hanson, a local musician who can be heard on Macon Noise Volume 1.

The reaction lacked the visceral anger of some of his fellow musicians. It was more like the reaction I heard from people who have been around longer and have been disappointed before, and I think I’m beginning to understand why.

The city of Macon has been on a decades-long, start-and-stop quest to reinvent itself and the music scene has followed a similar course. According to sources infinitely more knowledgable on the subject than me, there have been a number of attempts over the last 30 years to reinvigorate the Macon music scene. The groups behind the movements were young, idealistic, and nearly always fizzled after getting things off the ground. The reasons for their failure should be clear to anyone from a struggling small city. Economic resources are scarce, people leave, they find a job, have children, and all of a sudden, the scene evaporates.

Anyone can see the potential for this happen to the current group of innovative Macon musicians, and I’m beginning to see the vociferous response to the online bully as a symptom of the unease this thought engenders. Why else would it matter what one small mind thinks?

So where do I stand now?

I’m anything but the impartial observer, as I’m sure you can tell, but stepping back as much as possible, I still believe this scene has staying power. As much as the naysayers would have you believe otherwise, there are a number of factors working to the benefit of Macon Noisers.

First and foremost, the music is strong and diverse. Anyone who claims that this is simply a clique of like-minded artists, should listen to the startlingly varied Macon Noise Volume 1. Similarly, the people behind the movement are just as diverse, and have savvily harnessed the power of new and old media to reach a wider audience: witness Macon Noise fanzine, the Macon Noise compilation, and the group’s web presence on Facebook and on supportive sites like TheBlueIndian.com.

Perhaps most importantly, the scene has the support and wisdom of those who don’t immediately dismiss the online critics. I was baffled when I saw that people were finding things to agree with in the negative 11th Hour comments — how could they do that and still call themselves supporters of a scene? — but I’m beginning to see their underlying logic. Maybe we need to look at past failures in order avoid the inevitable pitfalls, and maybe we need to take the opinions of the harshest critics at more than face value.

It took me a little while to figure this out, and luckily, people were way ahead of me on it. I still contend that the music makes the scene, but I’m beginning to see — with the help of a number of people — the circular, interconnected nature of a self-supporting artistic community. As I write this, a number of projects are under way that could make this the movement that finally sticks, by addressing a number of larger issues that have plagued past efforts, like financial support of artists, booking tours for Macon artists, and attracting out-of-town acts to Macon’s  (hopefully) ever-growing number of independent music venues.

I still can’t predict success with certainty, but I’m getting more confident by the day.

Floridians @ Golden Bough

I’m still new to the business of bourgeoning scenes, but it has always seemed to me that an artistic community comes into its own when people from other cities and towns begin to take notice. Something about being in the thick of things, and having a personal stake in the outcome of the town you live in can certainly cloud your vision, but when bands from Atlanta, Athens, Birmingham, Charlotte and even my beloved Brooklyn begin showing up to play, you know things have clicked into place.

That certainly seems to be the case in Macon these days. I would say that half of the bands I’ve seen here in the last month have been from somewhere else –places with well established scenes, no less.  So is this really the beginning of the Macon renaissance?

I defer, as always, to people who have been here for the years and even decades necessary to make an honest judgement, and so far it seems that they are in agreement. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Check out the current issue of The 11th Hour in print or online. The cover story, by publisher Brad Evans, features some of the prime suspects who have been working for years to bring experimental, and truly indie music to a town that has contributed more than its share to American popular music over the years.

In the article, Evans brings up Denny Hanson, a twenty-something bandleader who was a teenage wunderkind — even landing on the cover if The 11th Hour himself — before moving to Portland. At the time it looked like a possible deathknell for the city’s gestational scene, but it wasn’t. The scene continued and now Denny is back. I caught him with his band floridians at The Golden Bough last Tuesday. It was my first time hearing him, so I have nothing to compare it to, but Denny seemed well versed in the kind of the emotive, referential indie rock that Portland specializes in.

It’s not necessarily music that I would chase down in New York, but it felt different here. I could sense in the lead-up to the show an anticipation that I have felt a few times here, a groundswell of support for an artist who could be somewhere else, but chooses to be here. The feeling was palpable at the show as well.

Hanson introduced his band in a low monotone — TJ Walter, a Los Angeles based drummer and Macon-based William Dantzler on bass — before the trio eased into “Del Mar,”  the opener to their latest EP, Waves. Like a number of songs on the album, “Del Mar” pairs Hanson’s legato vocals and keyboard against more rhythmically involved bass and drum parts. Dantzler’s bass laid down the static harmony, while Hanson ran arpeggios and leaned into the mic to deliver the song’s ethereal lyrics. Throughout the performance, drummer TJ Walter tapped eighth note rhythms on bass drum and the bell of his ride cymbal that provided counterpoint and momentum for band’s practiced transitions.

Stripped of the reverb and overdubs of the album, Hanson’s voice seemed vulnerable, but assured in both the upper and lower registers throughout the performance, which worked well within the diaphanous framework of most of the tunes. The only exception came when his voice broke into a gutteral shout, and a piece would jump into focus.

On the Facebook invitation for the event, Hanson warned that this would be the “first and probably only (ever) Macon performance” for floridians. Let’s hope he’s mistaken on that.

tuneOUToptIN To Macon

It’s been nearly three weeks since I moved to Macon, and I haven’t updated my blog. It’s not that I haven’t been busy, I have seen a lot of good music , met some really great people, and worked with my beautiful fiance Loretta to make our little house on Corbin Avenue a home, but I’m still trying to figure out how to best transition tuneOUToptIN from a blog that covered certain aspects of the endlessly varied NYC arts and culture scene to one that reports on the vastly different, but no less interesting scene in Macon.

I’ve spent the last three weeks trying to immerse myself here, and I think I’ve learned a great deal. Lesson One: Macon is not New York. Duh, right? Believe it or not, I had immerse myself in order to understand this basic fact. Approaching Macon with a New York attitude is a recipe for burnout and disappointment.

Things happen here, but not as often and with nowhere near the fanfare of most New York events. You have to find them. It helps to know who to ask, and I was lucky to have already had some contacts before arriving in Macon. Foremost among them is Chris Horne, the husband of one of Loretta’s colleagues, but also a prominent journalist and life-long resident of Macon. Over lunch a few days after I arrived, Chris broke down the varied music scene, as well as the tumultuous politics of this steamy southern town.

After our lunch at The Rookery — a downtown bar that is also an informal concert venue — Chris and I walked down Cherry Street. I pointed to a row of boarded buildings and asked who owned them? Chris’ answer, in a nutshell, was that people owned them and just let them sit empty. Apparently it’s cheaper for absentee owners to simply write off empty buildings than to make the necessary improvements for tenants to move in. Of course, even if they did fix them up, it would probably be difficult for owners to find tenants. The current recession has hit Macon particularly hard, dealing a serious blow to an economy that has been on the brink for decades and a music scene that has been struggling to redefine itself after the glory days of the Little Richard, James Brown and the Allman Brothers.

All of the sudden, my New York approach was moot. The consecutive concerts I had seen the first weekend were the exception, not the rule. I wouldn’t be able to just head out on my bike and be sure to find something interesting. I would have to do research, meet people, and make sure that I didn’t miss something, as it might never happen again. The current Macon music and art scene is still in larval stage. As scary as that might be for a New York transplant looking to report and take part in the arts, it is also extremely exciting. How often does one get to be at the rebirth of scene?

Clark Bush is another important person I met during my first week in Macon, and is one of the creative forces behind the Macon revival. A lifelong Maconite, Clark is a sound engineer, musician, promoter and an organizer of Macon Noise, a nonprofit that promotes creative music in Macon. While admitting that it is not there yet, Clark has seen Macon change over the past few years into a place that artists choose to stay in, or even better, come back to after a time away.

Chris Horne has also seen the change, noting during our lunch that when he moved back to Macon in the early 2000’s after a few years in Nashville, there were literally three bands in Macon. These days it’s hard to keep track, as Bragg Jam, and numerous concerts at The 567 and old hangs like The Hummingbird attest to.  Add to that the increasing diversity of styles — hip hop, rock, jazz, R&B, noise, punk, reggae and more — and you have a definite beginning.

So here I am. It’s a Sunday night in Macon, and I think I finally know the direction to go in. I hope you will follow me as I report on a scene in the making. It’s a world away from NYC, but I’m beginning to think that I could get used to that.

tuneOUToptIN Podcasts!

Still testing my podcasting abilities, but I thought I would test by uploading a couple tracks from a concert I recorded last month at The Jalopy Theater in Brooklyn featuring Up Up We Go!, a trio led by the postmodern crooner and multi-instrumentalist, Salvatore Geloso. Sorry about the audio quality. I recorded this on a voice recorder that was in my upturned bike helmet on the floor. All things considered, I think it sounds pretty good.

UP UP WE GO! @ THE JALOPY THEATER JULY 2010

RoseTintedReality

BumbleBeeBlues

Música Universal

This article appears in the current print issue of All About Jazz-New York. This is the uncut version.

This past June, Hermeto Pascoal celebrated his seventy-fourth year of music making. The date fell on his birthday, but that was no coincidence. “The first sound I made was when I was born, crying,” the musical sage remarked in an interview last month, through a translator, referring to his sound and technique. “I was born with this natural gift.” While most artists can point to events and experiences in childhood that played a part in shaping their subsequent art, Pascoal points to the moment of his birth in the rural state of Alagoas in northern Brazil as the beginning of his life as a musician. “I’m self-taught. I have always been a curious person and life has been my teacher. “

Inherent in Pascoal’s response is a duality that emerges in interviews with fans, academics, musical collaborators, and the man himself. Does artistic genius spring from the mind of the individual, or is some larger force operating through an open conduit? The question is moot, of course, but it looms over any investigation of Pascoal’s music, as it does for any artist whose deeply personal music resonates universally. Ultimately, Pascoal seems content to obliterate any artificial barrier between the individual and nature: “I discovered the sensibility of the animals, my relationship with nature, making natural instruments, playing with water…” he explained, countering the insinuation that his was an isolated childhood. “There was no electricity, nor radio where I lived until I was fourteen years old, (but) I felt completely integrated, not isolated, with people, with nature. “

The pianist, archivist and long-time collaborator Jovino Santos Neto brought this point into even sharper focus in an interview last month. “His talent is really an amazing ear, (and an ability) to connect with sound.” Santos Neto, a native Brazilian and member of the first generation in his country to grow up idolizing Pascoal and the music he and artists like Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, and Humberto Clayber were introducing to an increasingly global audience, was an integral member of Hermeto Pascoal e Grupo from 1977 to 1992. For the past twenty years, he has undertaken the monumental task of transcribing and cataloguing Hermeto’s prolific output as a composer, in addition to leading his own bands, working as a session player, orchestrator and conductor, and teaching at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

“It’s kind of like how they used to build cathedrals in the middle ages,” Santos Neto remarked, referring to his work as Hermeto’s archivist, “You take like four generations of people – it’s that kind of work and just as important.” Santos Neto’s work as a scholar and, what he calls, “an apprentice” of Pascoal’s music gives him a privileged insight into the workings of an artist he is quick to add to the pantheon of groundbreaking musicians of the last two centuries. “The connection with the folkloric music of Brazil, how he was able to elevate that to a really high, universal standard, without corrupting it” is quite rare, Santos Neto explained. “It’s been done in other places, of course, like with Béla Bartók, and Aaron Copeland with the music of the Appalachians, but what Hermeto has done has expanded that on a much more worldwide scale.”

Santos Neto’s musical insights are matched by his knowledge of his native Brazil, and in our interview he added a new perspective to the story of Hermeto’s early years.

In the northeastern part of Brazil – maybe because the terrain is so rugged; not lush and tropical, but very dry – it was a hard life, you know; people living from the land. It really – by natural selection – created highly individualistic people. The ability to create something with little is inherent to the people of that region. So if you put that together with Hermeto’s talent and genius, I think you really have the genius of his personality, his musical contributions.

From this arguably auspicious beginning, Hermeto moved with his family at the age of fourteen to Recife, a city with an incredibly rich musical tradition, where he absorbed the rhythms of Maracatú and frevo from the likes of Clovis Pereira, Guerra-Peixe, Duda, and Sivuca, and then on to Rio in the late 1950’s. Asked about his experience in Rio, Hermeto sited the dizzying array of musical talent living in the city at the time. “I moved to Rio because it was well known. There I played accordion at first with Pernambuco do Pandeiro in Mauá Radio and, at night, piano with Fafá Lemos in his night club. After that, I played piano with the great Maestro Copinha in the Exelsior Hotel.”

Additionally, Hermeto was beginning to make connections with musicians who would figure prominently in his ascent to worldwide recognition. “I met Airto and Humberto Clayber playing at night in jam sessions,” Pascoal remarked. Airto and Clayber – along with Theo de Barros — were already members of the group Trio Novo, but were quick to change the name to Quarteto Novo in order to include the fantastically talented newcomer, Pascoal. The group was instrumental in introducing Hermeto and Airto to audiences in Brazil and beyond, though they only recorded one album, 1966’s Em Som Maior.

It would be Airto Moreira who would indirectly launch Hermeto onto the world stage by bringing his friend backstage at a concert to meet his new boss, Miles Davis. “Airto played in Miles’ band,” Pascoal recalled, “and I was there to make the arrangements of my compositions and to record them with Airto and Flora. Before the concert, Miles saw me and came to me because he felt it should happen, and since then, we became musical and spiritual friends.” Hearing Pascoal’s mastery of piano and a wide-range of both conventional and handmade instruments, Davis didn’t hesitate to offer him a place in his band. Pascoal’s subsequent work with Davis, in concert and on the influential album Live/Evil catapulted him to international acclaim.

In the nearly forty years since debuting with Davis, Hermeto has toured the world with his own groups, released a truly diverse array of albums – including classics like Slaves Mass in 1977 and Brasil Universo in 1986 – and maintained a prolific output as a composer. “Hmm,” murmured Jovino Santos Neto, trying to assign a number to his mentor’s output, “when I left (the band) in 1992, our estimate was that he had around 3000 pieces, but he never stopped. Now, when I meet him, the last couple times, he just kind of hands me a notebook, and says ‘this is some stuff I’ve been doing.’ This is a notebook filled from top to bottom with music.”

Hermeto’s prodigious output has done more than fill Santos Neto’s free time in the last forty years. Generations of musicians across the world have come up listening to and incorporating Pascoal’s unpredictable melodic lines and sumptuous ballads into their own repertoire. For the New York based guitarist and vocalist Richard Boukas, hearing Hermeto’ music for the first time was a game changer. “It was in the mid-70’s,” Boukas recalled in an interview last month, “when I was developing my bebop playing, yet at the same time investigating the rich traditions of Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music.” A fan of the vocal sambas and bossa novas of João Bosco, Emilio Santiago, Ivan Lins, Chico Buarque, and Johnny Alf, Boukas was nonetheless floored he when borrowed an LP of Hermeto’s music from a friend. “Once I got a taste of Hermeto’s material, I knew immediately he was a unique genius and creative force, someone destined to inspire me in my own composing, playing and theoretical understanding.”

In the ensuing decades, Boukas’ instrumental and vocal work, along with his output as a composer and arranger have been influenced by Hermeto’s music; this in turn has led to a particularly fruitful and ongoing musical relationship with Jovino Santos Neto. Boukas has also passed his love of Hermeto’s music, and Brazilian music as a whole, to musicians at The New School in Manhattan since 1995. “I established the Brazilian Jazz Ensemble at the New School Jazz Program to expose young jazz musicians to Brazil’s wealth of regional grooves and composers,” he explained, “Hermeto being at the top of that list initially.” Over the years, the group’s repertoire has evolved to cover the different aspects of Brazil’s uniquely rich musical heritage – most recently, the ensemble has been dedicated solely to Choro, an instrumental style that traces its roots back to mid-19th Cenury Brazil – but has never strayed from Hermeto’s open-eared example.

“Hermeto has a natural gift for discovering the potential talent in a young musician,” remarked Santos Neto in an interview with journalist Bruce Gilman. “He knows how to make that talent grow and mature.” Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of his otherworldly talent, Pascoal’s mentoring skills have never escaped his dedicated pupils. “It’s not about him, it’s about the music – and there’s a big lesson there for all bandleaders,” Boukas remarked while recalling the afternoon he and Santos Neto spent playing new tunes with Hermeto at his home in Brazil. The egoless aspect of Hermeto’s music was a recurring theme throughout the interviews for this article, and seems to lie at the heart of this deeply resonant music. Hermeto has another phrase for it: música universal or Universal Music. “I live in the present,” he wrote in an email last month while on tour, “and keep composing, playing with four different groups. I (just) recorded my second cd in duo with (his wife) Aline Morena. This Universal Music is played in all (the) world!”

© Matt Miller 2010

Times Are A-Changin’

Wanted to give a quick update on what is going on in my personal life. In case you haven’t heard, I am leaving tomorrow to join my wonderful fiance in Macon, GA. We are so excited to be living together in a our own cute house, and to begin this new and exciting chapter in our life together. I hope to be writing and reporting more than ever in Georgia, so please stay tuned here for that. In addition, I will be continuing to do reviews for All About Jazz-New York, a number of internet jazz publications, and will be submitting my work to other publications around the country. I also hope to cover the diverse music scenes in Georgia, so please check back often for that and leave your comments and suggestions.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

-Matt