CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to arts of the people, on the Left, ranging from the radical avant garde and free jazz to dissident folk forms and popular arts . The Cultural Worker celebrates revolutionary creativity and features a variety of essays, reviews, fiction, reportage, poetry and musings through the internet pen of this writer, musician and cultural organizer. Scroll straight down and you'll also find an extensive historical Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, followed by a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the writers, musicians, painters, dancers, actors, photographers, film and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Friday, December 25, 2015

CD Review: WILD BILL DAVISON, “THE JAZZ GIANTS”, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-


WILD BILL DAVISON, “THE JAZZ GIANTS”
Sackville Stereo, released by Delmark Records 2015

Wild Bill Davison, cornet
Herb Hall, clarinet
Benny Morton, trombone
Claude Hopkins, piano
Arvell Shaw, bass
Buzzy Drootin, drums

CD Review by John Pietaro

Visions of hipness, concepts of cool, are born of a moment in time on which the industry machine feeds before the next whimsy strikes us—or is engineered to do just that. And so it goes in the wrestle between jazz and popular taste. Once upon a time, the music was drenched in the blues, marching to the strain of freely contrapuntal music that tore loose the constraints of the day. Such “traditional jazz”, born most excitedly in New Orleans but really in many places, cast seedlings universally. By the 1920s some of its greatest exponents ventured northward, inspiring the so-called Chicago school. This brand of hot jazz held strong regardless of the developments in the music or the demands of popular taste.

By the time the cornetist Wild Bill Davison brought all-star septet the Jazz Giants to Toronto, it was 1968. He’d trumpeted in the tradition, so to speak, for more than four decades, braving the ire of booking agents and modernists alike. But Davison, who’d struggled to take his place at center stage, had no intention of giving it up regardless of Miles’ “Nefertitti”, the Beatles’ ‘White Album’, or other musical advances released that year. For Davison, the classic instrumental line-up was all that was necessary, and here it was comprised of woefully under-recorded clarinetist Herb Hall (brother of Edmond), celebrated trombonist Benny Morton (who’d played with big band royalty), pioneering pianist Claude Hopkins (of Wilbur Sweatman’s early 20s band, Josephine Baker), Armstrong All-Star bassist Arvel Shaw and the drummer Buzzy Drootin, a regular at Eddie Condon’s nightclub and name bands alike. 

Wild Bill called for the stage to weep, smoke, sizzle, and sometimes burn. “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue”, fittingly, opens the disc. The spirit of Chicago resounds but also that of the Hot 5.  Hear time-honored titles like “Them There Eyes”, “Black and Blue”, “I Surrender Dear” plus one that harkens back to a groundbreaking ‘28 Condon session, “I Found a New Baby”. The mix keeps it fresh, the features of the band members spreads the wealth. And for those squeamish about the “Dixieland” moniker, listen to the free interactions between horns out front and an ignited rhythm section--and enjoy the fact that Albert Ayler and others revolutionists rode the tradition right into New Thing fire music.

CD Review: SARA SERPA AND RAN BLAKE, “KITANO NOIR”, NYC Jazz Record

Originally published in teh NYC Jazz Record, November 2015

SARA SERPA AND RAN BLAKE, “KITANO NOIR” (Sunnyside SSC 1362)
CD Review by John Pietaro



A late night, smoke-filled room, bathed in deep textural black and white. This is the imagery that vocalist Sara Serpa and pianist Ran Blake must have sought to imbue the listener with as they recorded this brilliant album, live at Kitano to a largely silent audience. It’s night music, but one that embraces musical modernisms as readily as the rich greys within shadows.

Blake, who has long been known to fuse atonality and whole-tone runs, among other contemporary concert music devices, into lush jazz chords, is in his element here. A noted accompanist to quite a few vocalists, this particular pairing finds him taking chances that most singers might respond to with an immediate grit of the teeth. But Sara Serpa, a former Blake student, appears to revel in every turn and comfortably slides in and out of tonality with great skill. The effect is often akin to late French Impressionist works; “Pelias e’ Melesande”, perhaps, if heard from Duke Ellington’s purview. The selections even include a personalized, creeping version of “Mood Indigo” that Duke would have to be moved by.

This album is filled with gems like this and with titles such as “When Sunny Gets Blue”, “Round Midnight”, “Get Out of Town” and “Good Morning Heartache”, along with Blake originals and others, the familiar strains guide the ear through this fascinating experimental structure.
“Kitano Noir” is the soundtrack to both sleepless nights and lost bourbon-and-cigarette breakfasts. Blake’s technical abilities are matched only by his emotional output and mastery of the material; Serpa’s utterly haunting voice boldly reclaims this music as if composing it anew.

So stark, the listener can almost fill the space with the whisper of dark nights, long ago.


HELEN SUNG feature, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-



HELEN SUNG: FORAY INTO THE TRADITION
By John Pietaro

“Jazz is one of the generous art forms”, Helen Sung remarked. “It’s based on interaction, expressiveness. I came to the music late in life and had to understand the soul of jazz before I could revel in the tradition”. After years of classical training, and while preparing for a career as a concert pianist, Sung stumbled upon jazz in an odd turn of events, and then nothing was the same.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants she describes as having been “very integrated” into western culture, Helen Sung’s relationship with European classical music began in the earliest stages of childhood. “My parents played it in the house all of the time and I had this little red plastic piano I used to carry around everywhere. I was very attached to it and used to try to pick out little bits of melodies. As soon as my mother noticed this, she decided I needed to pursue the instrument. We acquired an upright and I began lessons at age 5”. Sung’s studies were, from the start, rather strict and she developed an understanding of music notation and harmony along with technique early on. Simultaneously, she became part of a Suzuki-inspired violin ensemble. While the piano lessons offered her formal musical foundation, the ensemble afforded her the first opportunity to appear onstage. “I remember feeling a sense of familiarity and comfort being on stage and I guess it just stayed with me”.

Stay with her it did. Studies brought Sung to the University of Texas. The school has a history of sporting serious jazz careers, but the budding pianist neglected to cross the hall to investigate the genre, so focused was she on classical repertoire. Until a friend brought her to a Harry Connick Jr concert. “The music seemed so free, so driving, I had to learn more about this!” The revelation led her to an almost obsessive regimen of listening to jazz pianists across the spectrum and history of the music. Quickly, she was drawn to the playing of two giants of divergent eras: McCoy Tyner (“he’s a force of nature”) and James P. Johnson, a stand-out among the stride pianists whose playing she absorbed. The influences of both Johnson and especially Tyner would remain a core aspect of her musicianship.

“I took a beginning jazz course and then had to beg the jazz piano teacher top take me on as a student. It took quite some time as I was still a classical piano major, but he finally agreed to give me lessons”. The jazz studies continued on through college, more of a secret desire, even as she completed her Masters of Music in Classical Piano.

Explorations of the art form finally led Sung to audition for the Thelonious Monk Institute’s premier class in 1995. She became a part of a small cadre of students that kicked off the program, which was based on a master/apprentice relationship, within the New England Conservatory. Ron Carter directed the Institute and a series of top-line jazz masters came through including Clark Terry, Jackie McLean and Jimmy Heath. “The Institute was an invaluable godsend!”, she stated, recalling the immersion of education. Sung focused on learning the techniques and feel of be-bop which she delved into with a vengeance. In addition to learning modern jazz, she also began composing it. “Ron Carter told us that if we wanted to find our own voice, we needed to write our own music”.
A final project of the inaugural class was a tour of India and Thailand with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. For Sung, there was no turning back. She relocated to New York City in 1999 and established her own ensemble, recording her first album as a leader within three years. As of this writing, she is working on her seventh, in between a barrage of tours not only as a leader but also in bands led by others including Clark Terry, Regina Carter, TS Monk, Steve Turre, Lonnie Plaxico and Terry Lynne Carrington. In 2011 she also became the pianist of the Mingus Dynasty Big Band.
“I’d pretty much had shelved my classical playing, attempting to remake myself, but I’m incorporating it into my music in recent years. Yes, I’d had ambitions of melding classical and jazz but then I realized that Charles Mingus had done it already---and beautifully. He was so relevant as a composer and had such a wide scope, from the blues, to Stravinsky influences, and social issues. It’s amazing to help carry on his legacy.”

Helen Sung’s 2014 album on the Concord label, “Anthem for a New Day”, was itself a statement on the growth of her art and the reckoning of the two musical worlds she has coursed through. When asked exactly where the nexus between the two musics lies for her, Sung stated “It’s still being formed”. But the breadth of this album, ranging from audacious original works, unique takes on jazz standards and a point of burning free improvisation, reaches, hydra-like, in many directions at once. Sung’s performance practice quietly demands the full attention of the listener with impeccable technique careening through emotional, swinging harmonies of an advanced nature. Her rhythmic drive, particularly in ensemble settings, drops intrepid tacits within thickets of comping and wistfully compelling leads. As much as Sung gives on stage or in studio, she always sounds like she’s keeping it all just below the rim, holding back with the learned control of the conservatory musician, patiently waiting to turn up the heat.

Another layer to the Sung canon is the project “Sung With Words”, a collaboration with celebrated poet Dana Gioia, who writes not only with literary content in mind, but the rhythmic aspects of the words. It’s poetry that cries midnight blue, refusing to be static, to sit quietly on the page. “I’ve always envied how singers can have a more direct connection to the audience, so after meeting Dana a few years ago, I conceived of this pairing. There’s a powerful depth connecting the words and the music and pieces were written largely through our interaction, growing the poems and the music together. We are prepping for the live debut featuring vocalists Carmen Lundy and Carolyn Leonhardt”.  Helen Sung will bring this latest foray to NYC jazz audiences in December.


Sung With Words occurs at the Jazz Gallery on December 17

CD review: Todd Capp’s Mystery Train, Paris Frere, NYC Jazz Record

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, December 2015-



CD review by John Pietaro

Todd Capp’s Mystery Train, Paris Frere. Noncept Records, 2015

Though ‘Paris Frere’ was recorded in Brooklyn, the sounds captured on this disc may well have come through an artic passage by way of a lost culture. But the assemblage doesn’t do “world music”; this release casts a secret night journey into the avant heart of new music. And you’ll want to pay close attention to the content lest it envelop you like an aural haunting.

Drummer-leader Capp directs this brilliant ensemble securely from behind. His musicianship is exported often times through what he does not play. This has been written before about such rare drummers, but Capp creates boiling points at pianissimo as needed, with marked tacits to increase tension. Stinger accents via muted cymbals or atmospheric rim-shots allow the mind’s ear to fill in the rest. Or not. Capp experimented early on with prime movers of the AACM in Chicago before becoming embedded in his native NY’s downtown ‘80s hotbed. In Mystery Train, Capp’s contrapuntal drumming works in startling accord with Kurt Ralske’s yearning, adventurous cornet, Watson Jennison’s beautifully pained reeds and flute (and drums on one track), Andrew Lafkas’ driving bass, and the deep gray tapestries generated by Gao Jiafeng and Michael A Holmes, alternating spots on electronics. Add the wonderfully other-worldly voice tracks of Jiafeng and the music crosses into other places, other times.

Use of modal phrases, pedal-centered basslines, echoey cornet and timp mallets rolling across tom-toms offers this music something of an ECM vibe, yet there is an urgency here that cuts to the core of free jazz: a revolutionary declaration of sound. The restless foray of ‘Paris Frere’ may begin on the continent but quickly disappears into the highlands of the East and out. This is visceral music.
Capp and company, through five bold pieces, would deny you the opportunity to ever categorize Mystery Train.


FRANKLIN KIERMYER feature, NYC Jazz Record

Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, September 2015

FRANKLIN KIERMYER
OUTSIDE The Journey Within
By John Pietaro

Franklin Kiermyer’s tom-toms thunder across the room as metallic shimmers slice the air, at once rapturous, restless and uncompromising. His limbs dancing over the drumkit, Kiermyer becomes entranced in the music about him, playing a rolling, swinging free rhythm that speaks as much about the history of jazz drumming as it does the avant school he has become associated with.
“I have a big devotion to evolution”, Kiermyer explained. “As a kid, the first music that really affected me, that made me feel, were the old Fats Waller and Kid Ory records my father had. Certain discs I listened to over and over again. I would find myself hearing the tunes long after the record player was turned off. These records loomed large in every way: big energy, big phrasing and big time. Drummers like Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds and Minor Hall were the first that inspired me to play. They still do.”

Kiermyer, who hails from Canada but has lived around the world over the decades, began studies at age 12 with a Montreal percussionist and composer. By high school, timpani was added to his instrumental pallette. “Playing timpani brought me to the awareness that each drum has its own pitch, a natural resonance, a natural voice where the instrument speaks”.
Listening for the natural voice inside has become the guiding force for Kiermyer. As a teenager, the drummer was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism. He has since been a life-long devotee. “This is a spiritual platform to open up and let me go where I want to go. I had an urgent need to find my own way”.

Searching for the musical conception he desired, the journey led Kiermyer to Woodstock NY to study improvisation with legendary bassist Dave Holland. Time spent upstate also brought him to a higher level of spirituality at the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.

“If you take away all of the isms—including jazzisms—there’s something deeper beneath. That’s what I want to experience and share”, Kiermyer stated, reflecting on the relationship between meditation and musical improvisation. A model for him has been John Coltrane. Kiermyer looked to albums such as ‘Sun Ship’ in finding that nexus. But while this level of the music made a profound impact on him, and drummers such as Elvin Jones left an indelible imprint on his playing, Kiermyer continued his search—within and without.  The venture included significant struggle. ”It is one thing to have feelings for the music and another to manifest those feelings to create it. The ‘a-ha’ moment and the ‘oh shit’ moment are closely related”.

Sessions with Mick Goodrick and John Abercromie followed time spent with Holland and by the 1980s Kiermyer was living in midtown Manhattan, deeply immersed in the expansive music scene. As a result of his friendship with Don Alias, he was hired to play in an ensemble led by percussionist Daniel Ponce for a special event of the 1986 Kool-Newport Jazz Festival, ‘Night of Percussion’ which featured a wealth of brilliant drummers in different ensembles. The Ponce band was stand-out due to its hip hop and downtown grooves. Ponce was one of many musicians whose discography walked the edge of experimental and commercial sounds in that fertile period when punk culture and indie arts were part of a milieu with underground jazz and composition. With this festival gig, Kiermyer imagined a major career move. But when he got to the hall he found that he was to play not on a standard drumkit but a couple of DMX electronic drum pads, creating machine-inspired rhythms for Ponce and three bata drummers to play over. He was dismayed but, true to his concept of the journey, Kiermyer found what was needed for the music. “It was all part of the experience”, he recalled. “Opportunity is omnipresent”.

On the roads inner and outer, Kiermyer became a bandleader along the way, founding a series of ensembles that leave behind a powerful discography. Skimming through the list of albums, one is struck by the individualism of the recordings, though each retains the mark of the leader. Perhaps his best known release is ‘Solomon’s Daughter’ (1994) which features another spiritual journeyman, Pharoah Sanders. The album offers Sanders’ most profound playing in decades. Here the Coltrane aura is celebrated, yet the unique urgency Sanders conjures with Kiermyer, pianist John Esposito and bassist Drew Gress is vividly evident. The music is nothing short of stirring.

The various Kiermyer bands through the years have included such stalwarts as Sam Rivers, Azar Lawrence, Juni Booth, Dewey Redman, Joe Lovano and a long list of others who traverse the eras of free music. With such a wide spectrum of experience behind him, one may think it a challenge for Kiermyer to create new inroads, but once again he is excited about a new band. Two of them, actually:

“My new ensemble with Lawrence Cook and Davis Whitfield is the closest to what I’ve been trying to do. Our debut is in August in New York. And I am starting a new British band with Nat Birchill that will play the Brighton Alternative Jazz Festival in September. These musicians have allowed me to take the music further than before—but further inside, not out. Further inside myself as it reaches forward and evolves beyond”

Franklin Kiermyer will debut his new quartet at Korzo Restaurant’s ‘Konception Music Series’, 667 5th Avenue, Brooklyn on August 4, 8PM.


Thursday, December 24, 2015

STEVE LITTLE, feature, NYC Jazz Record

-This article first appeared in THE NYC JAZZ RECORD, Nov 2015-


STEVE LITTLE: Hidden Force
The Ellington Drummer That Made “Sesame Street” Cook!
By John Pietaro

“So how exactly did you dig me up?” Steve Little asks right up front”. “I’m not usually the guy the press goes after”.

Though he has performed and recorded with countless artists of note, from the bands of Duke Ellington, Charlie Barnett and Lionel Hampton, to legendary vocalist Josephine Baker and fusion pioneers Weather Report, drummer-percussionist Stephen Little has rarely if ever sought the spotlight. A consummate professional, Little’s career, still going strong as he nears his 81st birthday, has been an adventure through genre and era, much of it spent in studios, well out of the public view.
Born in Brooklyn in 1935 but raised in Hartford Connecticut, Little’s creativity was strongly encouraged by his family. “We were working-class but my parents pushed us toward intellectual pursuits. For me this meant music, but in those days drummers had to contend with a lot of disrespect. I couldn’t just play, I had to study the drums”.

Drawn to jazz, yet driven to understand the full breadth of his instrument, Little became a student of Al Lepak, timpanist with the Hartford Symphony. “Al had a million students---everyone in the area went through him. Joe Porcaro and Emil Richards were there too. I studied timps mainly and some mallet percussion”. Lepak, who’d started his career as a big band drummer, also taught basic jazz drumset as well. What the lessons couldn’t provide, Little absorbed from the front row of Hartford’s State Theatre. “As a kid I would go early on a Saturday to see if I could cop licks from Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich! I saw so many bands—Dorsey, Krupa, Louis Armstrong. The band would play but then you had to sit through movies, newsreels and a comedian before the second set. I don’t know how many hours I spent there”, he said laughing.

in the Hartford Symphony, working under Fritz Mahler’s baton for a performance of Orff’s ‘Carmina Burana’. After a tour with Holiday on Ice, he relocated to New York and gigs came quickly. By the turn of the 1960s, Little held a regular drumset job with Sal Salvador’s band, providing him wide exposure, yet he sought out vibraphonist Phil Kraus to engage in advanced mallet studies.

Steve’s reputation as a session player also developed in this time. “My first professional studio date was for radio comic Henry Morgan. After that, I recorded with Salvador and then Terry Gibbs in 1961. Some of the guy’s in Sal’s band were writing jingles and I got more sessions”. Little came to play vibes for the soundtrack of ‘General Hospital’ as well as an array of television and film scores over the decades. “I can’t recall them all now. One went into the next”.

Live gigs continued too and in 1964 Little accompanied vocalists Eddie Fisher and Anita O’Day, then went on to sub for Louie Bellson behind Pearl Bailey. By ‘66 he was in Charlie Barnet’s band and performed with Lionel Hampton at the Newport Jazz Festival. One night while in the driver’s seat with Barnet, Duke Ellington came into the club and sat in. He contacted the drummer shortly thereafter. “I really didn’t want to join Duke I as I was focused on the studios, but how could anyone turn THIS down? Duke was God. His compositions, and especially Billy Strayhorn’s, were very complex. This was linear music, streams of colors”.

 The Ellington band was working the Rainbow Room, preparing for a tour. The stellar line-up included famed alto saxophonist Johnnie Hodges, among other star musicians. Strayhorn, however, was already very ill and passed away shortly thereafter. His crushing loss led to the celebrated album, “His Mother Called Him Bill”, still deemed one of Ellington’s most important records.

Though the position was esteemed, Little left the band by 1967 and returned to the studios as well as to college. But he wasn’t gone for long. “Duke called me back after trying out many drummers. The young guys all wanted to play like Tony Williams!” But this was now the late 1960s and public taste was changing. An appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ gave Little a sense of what was to come. “Our band had some amazing soloists, but then after us the Vanilla Fudge took the stage. I watched the kids in the audience and they were ecstatic. We couldn’t match that; it was a new day. It made me realize that we were becoming relics. I had to reinvent myself.”

Steve began to carefully listen to rock, R and B and soul music rather than reject it like many of his contemporaries.  He adapted easily to the call for “a rock feel” in the studios, particularly for soundtracks and work with several folk singers including Joan Baez and Buffy St. Marie. And then there was a new PBS children’s series, “Sesame Street”.

“That was a great band”, Little recalls, “led by Joe Raposo who wrote most of the charts”. “We recorded in one take, it was very loose”. Due to the success of the series, the same ensemble scored “The Electric Company” program as well. The jobs lasted 22 years but Little made time for performances with the Joffrey Ballet, Sarah Vaughn, Dave Brubeck, various Broadway shows and many recording dates including Weather Report’s “Mysterious Traveler” album, on which he played timpani, tom-toms and marimba.


The pulse behind the stars, Steve Little’s career was often out of the spotlight, but fruitful. “You know it took me fifty years to be comfortable being ‘just’ a drummer. But I came to realize that playing drums is damned intellectual: it’s an abstract instrument and yet you control every aspect of the music--and make even the worst musician feel the swing, the groove. This has been a great career. Looking back, I’m glad I chose the route I did. I wouldn’t trade it”.