Wednesday, October 30, 2019


NYC Jazz Record, November 2019

Performing my poem for Bern "Dancing to Incessant June" at the
2019 Bern Nix Jazz Festival accompanied by Charlee Ellerbe.
Photo by Robert Sutherland-Cohen
 By John Pietaro

As the Bern Nix Jazz Festival wrapped on September 28, Charlee Ellerbe crouched at stage-right, packing up his Steinberger 6-string. “The truth is”, he said sans irony, “I’ve never called myself a guitarist.  This is a vehicle for the melodies, the arrangements I hear”. Ellerbe, esteemed guest artist of this event honoring Prime Time’s other guitarist, held the audience in a state of fixation as he crafted melodic assaults and agitational pulsations on this vehicle he played 14 years with Ornette Coleman, time with Sun Ra and for the Coleman memorial at Lincoln Center and beyond. And then there is Matrix 12:38, which Ellerbe pridefully cites as wholeheartedly Harmolodic. “Each note can be everything to every other note”.

Born in Philadelphia, 1950, Ellerbe was inspired by the R&B and pop sounds in his midst. Seeing a guitarist friend perform in 1964, he delved into the instrument, listening closely to Kenny Burrell but, “I was more interested in what non-guitarists did, how McCoy Tyner juggled keys”, he explained. “And I loved Burt Bachrach; the arrangements gripped me”.  Drawn to rock music, his propensity for loud volumes and distortion grew along with the genre’s development. “Jimi Hendrix changed everything. And (Chicago’s) Terry Kath. His playing was creative, so unpredictable. What matters most is that the instrumentalist speaks from their soul”

Ellerbe studied composition at Philadelphia’s celebrated Combs College of Music, preparing for a career as a studio arranger. “I played in Top 40 bands and worked as a spot-welder. Caught fire a couple of times when the sparks flew!” A friend then playing trombone with the Trammps, whose “Disco Inferno” was a mass hit, advocated for Ellerbe’s hiring over months. “Finally I got the call and was touring within two weeks”.

His tenure with the band continued, but he was also recruited by organist Charles Earland, via his friend, bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma. “Earland liked Jamaal so much he asked, ‘Are there more like you at home?’ I was in that band for a season, then Earland fired me one minute before I was going to quit! His ego was like too much oatmeal in a pot that bubbles over. The following summer, Jamaal got fired too!”, he added, laughing. But by then, Tacuma was already a member of Ornette Coleman’s latest aggregation and immediately recommended Ellerbe. “I didn’t want to do it at first. I wanted to play rock. I had my distortion pedals and I figured Ornette would be playing acoustic jazz”. Arriving at Coleman’s legendary Prince Street loft, Ellerbe saw Bern Nix already present. “Ornette wanted two guitars and two basses to cover the lows and highs of the orchestral string section. I plugged into the amplifier which was set on ‘5’ and after several songs he approached me. I thought here it comes—but he asked me to turn UP the volume. When I next looked over, hours had gone by”. At session’s end, Coleman simply asked Ellerbee if he had a passport. “I reminded him that I don’t play jazz. Ornette nodded and said ‘Okay’. So, I said it again to make sure he understood: ‘I really don’t know any jazz’ and he again said ‘Okay’. So, I said ‘Ornette, I play hard rock’. Finally, he just said ‘Well, play that then’.

So, what was Prime Time like for a hard rock guitarist and wishful arranger? For Ellerbe, nothing short of total immersion. “It was like driving on a highway: anyone can change lanes at the last minute, but the cars also paved the highway they drove on. After the melody, there’s nothing on the page. Ornette wanted to hear what he couldn’t predict”.

Still, the pace seemed insurmountable and three years in, Ellerbe offered his resignation. “Harmolodics is a bootcamp, a university without walls. I didn’t think I could keep up”, but instead, Ellerbee came to hold the title of “Ornette’s henchman”, so close was his approach in performance.
Listening to the band’s recordings, one is struck by the orchestral scope, the impossibly intricate lines like Escher staircases leading to a common destination. It’s said that Nix doubled the melody and Ellerbe played rhythm, but they morphed roles and Ellerbe’s chordal patterns became banshee howls, industrial crunches and trademark lamentations. “I needed to play aggressively. I’m not a sight reader, I’m basically a soloist, so I beat those strings up”.

By the ‘90s, Coleman reached into directions beyond Prime Time, so Ellerbe taught at Philadelphia cultural center the Clef Club before joining Sun Ra’s Arkestra for several years. “It taught me a whole other responsibility. In the 1940s, big band guitarists held down the rhythm and I’d never done that before”.

However, the lure of Harmolodics proved lasting, moving Ellerbe to form the riveting ensemble Matrix 12:38, “We’re the only band branched off from Prime Time which fully perpetuates the Harmolodic concept.  I write the melodies and they bring in everything they know”. With a line-up of Ellerbe, drummer Anthony Matthews, bassist Kenny Jackson Jr and percussionist Ready Freddie, with various horn players, the extension of Prime Time is apparent, but so is the relationship between music and atmosphere. Ellerbe is planning a recording through Philly radio station WRTI, with the goal of New York dates, followed by Europe. “Out of the Prime Time band, the public has heard from everyone but me. When I come out, it’ll be brand new. Unpredictable”

Poetry: 5:03 AM (for Steve Dalachinsky)

5:03 AM
Photo and lay-out by Sherry Rubel; excerpt of my poetry

(for Steve Dalachinsky)

3:15AM. Shhh. Speak nothing now.
Speak not.
There’s a fading din beneath the well of silence.
It turns envious the darkling.

The sun now rises later than it once did,
Doesn’t it?

4:37. September’s torrid dampness cedes to nothing
Here in Brooklyn, but
The chill of the Long Island Sound
Steve and I performing together, Brecht Forum approx 2014
Freezes the poetry in time, like
Burroughs in Morocco,
So far from home.

4:55, this day which bordered no sleep,
Mind festering, precious pain.
The sun must rise later than it once did.
Tell me it does.

The call of gulls falls deaf on hospital walls,
Where strange machinery turns, tabulates,
And sways through
Cross-rhythms of tap, scrape,
And sob.

My photo of Steve, Bowery Electric, June 2019
A dancehall of wire brushes ignites
Booming skins and shimmering bronze,
Gassing the flame of sauntering yesterday,
As after-hours haze covets
A thicket sound in vivid black

The call of Gayle in the wild, he, Streets the Clown
Seething through tubes and drips, submerged in
The unfettered, busking improvisation.
And the final night erupts joyously, leading you
South of Houston.

The colors, the shapes which fall from your pen
Cast a reflection of then into tomorrow.
Many tomorrows,
Poet Laureate of Outside.

5:03AM. The sun halts in its place, as
The mist purples
Over Spring Street.

The clouds are but a
Painted backdrop.

-John Pietaro, 9/16/19, 11:52pm,
Brooklyn NY

"5:03 AM" was first published in  John Pietaro's chapbook SMOKE RINGS (2019)

Performance review: TRIBUTE TO STEVE CANNON

NYC Jazz Record, NY@Night section, October 2019 issue

Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center, NYC

Performance review by John Pietaro

The crowd which overwhelmed the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (September 6) came to celebrate Steve Cannon, LES poet, elder, teacher and cultural organizer, whose June passing remains grievous. Downtown creatives who’d come of age through the decades, many at the behest of Cannon, filled both stage and auditorium. Among the performing poets were Steve Dalachinsky--whose unexpected passing but a week later has leveled the community, his partner Yuko Otomo, Lydia Cortes and Edwin Torres opened the concert with moving works. Later, Anne Waldman performed with saxophonists James Brandon Lewis and Devin Bajha Waldman blowing cyclical, interlocking phrases around and through her poetry. “You may welcome all the strains”, Waldman dramatically advised. Cleveland poet/vocalist Julie Ezelle Patton’s piece drew on stirring melisma, spoken word, blues and a world of vocalization. Another gifted poet and vocalist, Tracie Morris, with cornetist Graham Haynes and downtown icon Elliot Sharp (guitar), movingly performed with Cannon’s recorded voice. The powerful ensemble What It Is?, fronted by Arts for Art administrator Patricia Nicholson Parker (poetry, dance) also boasted William Parker (bass), Melanie Dyer (viola), James Brandon Lewis and Devin Bajha Waldman (saxophones) and Val Jeanty (electronic percussion).  Closing off this magical evening was Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra which soared, wailed and softly sang through captivating originals, quaking free segments and an utterly compelling “Stranger in Paradise” with vocalist Tara Middleton’s rich alto welcoming all strains as Allen’s saxophone work, filled with the spirit, utterly belied his 94 years.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Essay: RONNIE BURRAGE: Music of Reckoning and Awakening

Published in The Wire August 2019 (with subtitle "Drumming up support")

RONNIE BURRAGE: Music of Reckoning and Awakening
by John Pietaro

Ronnie Burrage sits at the house drumkit of Sista’s Place, the noted jazz haunt in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, leading eloquently from behind. A multi-instrumentalist wielding formidable piano skills, the kit bears an electronic keyboard hovering over its floor tom. Burrage tosses right-handed chords into the harmonic structure while maintaining a torrential rhythmic onslaught across three limbs. The evening, one of several the drummer crafted in honor of the late Hamiett Bluett, ignites the capacity crowd. The band’s riveting take on Bluett’s classic “Oasis” culminates in a tireless montuno peppered by crushing accents which threaten, it seems, the very foundation of the room.

Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Ronnie Burrage came of age during the height of the Black Artists Group (BAG) which forged a unified mission for the arts and African American liberation. But BAG only furthered the path the drummer had largely been born into. “My paternal grandfather was Allan David Mahr, a rather unknown literary giant”, Burrage explained. A pioneering poet of color, Mahr was a predecessor and close associate of revolutionary writers Amiri Baraka and Shirley Le Flore. “My new album Dance of the Great Spirit includes ‘God’s Only Black Man’, a poem he wrote 90 years ago. It’s in the archives of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill. It’s become a mantra for me”.

Burrage’s mother and five uncles were musicians and great uncle John Sanders, a saxophonist with Bessie Smith. Jam sessions were regular in the family home, exposing even the youngest to creative inspiration. “As a toddler, I was banging on pots and pans, then before age ten, began picking out melodies on piano”. He also sang with the St. Louis Cathedral Choir and, at age 9, was chosen among hundreds of hopefuls to recite ‘Sonnet of the Apple’ with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra at Washington University. “I recall sitting on Mr. Ellington’s piano bench. He was so kind”.

Following several years of piano studies, Burrage joined the local drum corps., but engaged in no formal drumset lessons. “I initially learned by watching St. Louis’ great drummers up close. Joe Charles taught me how to play “breakneck”, which means swinging extremely fast and intense without exerting too much energy. Joe was known by Coltrane and, as he never left St. Louis, subbed for Elvin on many Mid-Western gigs”.

Under the guidance of BAG, a cohort organization of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), St. Louis developed a creative community reflecting the wider Black Liberation Movement. Following a 1968 production of Jean Genet’s the Blacks, BAG began presenting concerts, readings, dance and theatre works, exhibits, screenings and extensive tutelage in the arts, history and civil rights. “BAG programs taught us the words of Malcolm X, King, Baraka, Angelou. It taught about the Black Panther Party and other organizations that were not radical but, rather, humane, just and egalitarian. They exposed many to beautiful Black art, inspiring a sense of newness, fight, pride and standing tall”, Burrage reminisced. “Both BAG and the AACM were forged of the resistance against oppression, racism, control and stigma. They both were (and are) outlets for innovative artists needing to express themselves without limitation or stereotype. They both did work in the community to uplift people of color and essentially anyone who wanted to be free and open about humanity”.

BAG was largely founded by Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, saxophonist-flutist JD Parran and trumpeter Floyd LeFlore whose ensemble Third Circuit & Spirit featured trumpeter Baikida Carrol, guitarist Kelvyn Bell and trombone player Joseph Bowie. “And every show included the radical, socially conscious poetry of ‘Mom’ Shirley LeFlore”, he recalled. “Mor Thiam, the great Senegalese djembe player, was there too. He worked with choreographer Katherine Dunham, later with Freddie Hubbard, BB King and Don Pullen”.

It wasn’t long before Burrage found his way onto BAG’s stage. “I became involved as a youth, perhaps 10 or 11, playing at poetry readings that featured Shirley LeFlore. Her husband Floyd, along with J.D Parran, gave me opportunities to play in their ensemble. Papa Glen Wright, an amazing percussionist, played drums, vibes and timps. I started subbing for him as a kid”

By age 13, Burrage was leading a club date band and a year later, became the regular drummer with Third Circuit & Spirit, performing music from the avant garde to post-bop and R&B. “Fontella (“Rescue Me”) Bass was there too. In addition to a great singer, she was an accomplished pianist and organist”. For all of its accomplishments, by 1973, BAG experienced dubious defunding and its erosion followed soon after.

In 1978, on a North Texas State University music scholarship, Burrage made the decision to move to New York City: “I know racism. So that led me out of Texas, right to New York”. Residing in the South Bronx in a turbulent time, as the city struggled through a crushing economic crisis, he saw the rise of hip hop along with the burnt-out landscape. “I lived where they were doing rap jams in school yards or on the street, so would take my drums out and jam with the rappers. This saved me several times when I was almost jacked in the neighborhood”.

But he was compelled by Manhattan’s nightlife, traveling in frequently to meet the leading jazz artists. “I was also hanging out with Charles Bobo Shaw, then running the La Mama Theatre in the East Village. He introduced me to Billy Bang and Frank Lowe” whom he’d later work with. The theatre was/is an underground hub for cutting-edge artists. Burrage and his drums traveled back and forth by subway (“I took the bottom heads off so I could stack them in duffle bags”) until, following Kelvyn Bell’s arrival in town, the two moved into an upper floor of La Mama and were soon in the employ of Arthur Blythe.

In this same period, Burrage became a founding member of Defunkt, an original downtown band fusing improvisation with free jazz, funk and rock. “In 1978, Defunkt was a collective of Joe Bowie, Melvin Gibbs, Kelvyn Bell, Martin Aubert and me. Joe’s had many iterations since then, but we composed that first album collectively. Joe began to dictate a certain sound, but the initial concept was to be free”. Burrage left Defunkt to join McCoy Tyner’s band, simultaneously, developing a close relationship with Amiri Baraka. “The book, Blues People was the beginning for me. As a child, trying to understand Baraka’s words and writings, I often had long conversations with my grandfather, asking him to explain. Later, Amiri became a friend I could call 24/7 for advice, guidance and mentorship. I performed many times at his home nightclub (Kimako’s Blues People) and my band played for his “celebrity roast” in Newark, New Jersey. Many luminaires were there including Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Bill Cosby, Sonia Sanchez, Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones. Amiri and I performed in concert multiple times, he was a guest lecturer with me at Penn State University and advocated for my professorship. I miss him like mad. Amiri was an incredible truth that I needed and need to better myself”.

In this flurry of activity, Burrage began his association with Archie Shepp and became a regular drummer at Seventh Ave South, the legendary Greenwich Village club run by the Brecker Brothers. Ronnie performed frequently with either or both Brecker, also making frequent appearances at SOBs, Lush Life, the Bottom Line and Studio Rivbea and playing dates with Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius (“double drumming with Rashid Ali”), Sonny Rollins and Pat Methaney. Burrage in 1983, founded Third Kind of Blue “and then I started getting the buzz that I was going to be in Weather Report after Peter Erskine left. Jaco wanted me, Wayne too, but Joe wanted Omar Hakim. (laughs) I understand that it was because he liked his name!”

Work with Richard Davis, the Mingus Dynasty ensembles, Courtney Pine, Joanne Brakeen and Jack Walrath (including the Grammy-nominated Master of Suspense) followed. Throughout the 90’s, Burrage played with Bluiett, Eddie Gomez, Billy Bang, Bobby Watson, David Murray, Carlos Ward, Joe Zawinul, the World Saxophone Quartet and Reggie Workman’s Coltrane Legacy, as well as his own band, initially founded in 1979. Simultaneously, he taught at JazzMobile and the New School.
This rapid-fire lifestyle ultimately led to the need for solace. Following a divorce, Burrage left his East Village flat for Florida, and life as a single father. “I also did a lot of soul searching”. Within a few years, he moved with his children to Pennsylvania to teach at Penn State where he met his current wife, Chanda, a science professor. World Rhythm Academy, the non-profit the two founded, serves people with addictions and children at risk through expressive arts. “Our vision is bridging the gap between youth and elders, incorporating social justice toward real change”. The organization produced a program for community organizing around the case of Michael Brown, the African American college student murdered by police in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as the haunting series of other Black youth deaths at the hands of local police. “So many young Black people were being killed and my response to it was a series of videos for my graduate project at Goddard College, incorporating documentary-style footage and original music. We also established a performance series to quell brewing racial tensions on campus, Java Jam, which featured music and the Penn students’ topical poetry and artwork”.

After Burrage successfully completed his Master of Fine Arts in Interdisciplinary Arts (music, composition and history), the couple and their children relocated to Brooklyn. In addition to becoming re-immersed in New York’s jazz circle, the drummer became a professor at State University of New York, Old Westbury, on Long Island. True to his social justice roots, lectures incorporate life lessons. “We talk about people’s struggles around the world and how changes in society start with young people. Recently, we were discussing ‘45’ --I won’t say that man’s name”, referring to Trump, “and I asked them to challenge the norms of their grandfathers”.

Burrage, the composer and band leader, also continues to forge a new way. Dance of the Great Spirit explores cultural fusions through his fiery international trio, the Holographic Principle, with bassist Nimrod Speaks and Polish pianist Michal Wierba. They’re preparing for an autumn tour, seeking out a higher power at each performance. “We share a passion for changing the world through music, a tool of reckoning and awakening to tell our stories of truth”.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

CD review: Ben Goldberg, Good Day for Cloud Fishing

-Originally published in the NYC Jazz Record, August 2019-

Ben Goldberg, Good Day for Cloud Fishing (Pyroclastic 2019)
CD review by John Pietaro

Within the varied realm where jazz meets poetry, ranging from early Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance to the Beat Generation and Word Jazz to Baraka and the Black Arts Movement through the Last Poets and the shock of the new, clarinetist Ben Goldberg has carved a singular path. Instead of having a poet reading/improvising with a jazz ensemble, or simply having the ensemble react to written poetry, Goldberg composed music based on twelve works by acclaimed poet Dean Young, rebel of the second New York School of poets whose verse reaches well into surrealism. But once Goldberg brought celebrated guitarist Nels Cline, trumpeter Ron Miles and his own clarinet and contra-alto clarinet into the studio, Young sat in the control room creating new works based purely on the sounds in his headphones. The poet had no idea as to which of his writings were being “played” by the trio, thus had freest reign, another improviser in the band (he’s credited with “typewriter”). One part Dada, two parts Cage, perhaps. The poetry is visible within this beautifully packaged boxed set on twelve cards with the initial “Entry” poem on the front and Young’s final “Exit” poem on back. Also included is a booklet photos and first-person liner notes.

The outcome is fascinating, with the instrumental interpretations of the poems subjected to the impressions of the poet. Like a game of telephone, in most cases the final work is vastly different than the original source poem. On “Ant-Head Sutures”, Young’s poem opens with “Once I got into trouble/I got my aura photographed/green grapefruit with a purple”, built on a form with seven stanzas. It’s interpreted by Goldberg as a medium tempo groove following the poem’s natural phrasing, with a tonal, yearning trumpet solo and biting guitar breaks, before breaking into a close 2-part canon by the winds with alien terrain guitar effects. The resultant poem, however, carries the album title most justifiably. It reads, in part: 

“In the grand scheme of things
there probably isn’t…
Wear your best whirlwind
and meet me at the melody”. 

Another standout, “A Rhythmia”, a classic experimentalist poem (“A mallet stops a horserace/there is a dwarf in my face/I rewind emptiness”) is heard as relentlessly musical, deliciously listenable music. Note Miles’ trumpet melody recalling Herb Alpert, Goldberg’s hip contra-alto clarinet line and Cline serving as an entire rhythm section. Beautiful stuff, this. Young’s exit poem here, “Ornithology”, an airborne migration from Charlie Parker, saddles the rhythm, riding blindfolded to the end: 

“See that smoke? It’s a person
See that funny stick thing?
That’d be me lucky to be where ever here is…”.

Ben Goldberg: clarinet, contra-alto clarinet/Nels Cline: electric guitar/Ron Miles: trumpet/Dean Young: typewriter

1.         Demonic Possession is 9/10 of the Law
2.        Parthenogenesis
3.        Phantom Pains
4.        A Rhythmia
5.        Corpse Pose
6.        Because She Missed a Test
7.        Reality
8.        Sub Club Punch Card
9.        Ant-Head Sutures
10.      Someone Has to Be…
11.        Surprised Again By the Rain
12.      An Ordinary Day Somewhere

Sunday, June 23, 2019

performance review: Puma Perl's Pandemonium, 6/21/19

Puma Perl’s Pandemonium, 6/21/19, Bowery Electric, NYC
Performance review by John Pietaro

Puma Perl & Friends 
The spirit of downtown past was on raucous display at Bowery Electric on June 21, once again under the guiding hand of Puma Perl, denizen of this hallowed corner at Joey Ramone Place. While the Bowery of old has fallen under the thicket of high-priced restaurants and luxury buildings commanding the once infamous strip, real New York, equal parts LES community and outsider arts ingenuity, has survived the maelstrom. At least in quarters such as this, yards from the sad carcass of CBGB and the phantom hindsight of Max’s, Club 82, Mercer Arts, the Mudd Club, the Tin Palace. Could Joey have ever envisioned that his name would hover East 2nd Street? For most of us in the house, there’s no rest until street sign dedications proclaim a Punk Place, Richard Hell Way, Patti Smith Street, Lydia Lunch Lane and Basquiat Avenue, for a start.

Puma Perl is most identified with punk verse, but rather than an artform grown in the midst of the melee, hers predates the turning new wave, growing along with venues like the Nuyorican Poets Café. Perl’s quarterly events at the Bowery Electric, the Pandemoniums, debuted in 2012. It’s easiest to think of these very hip showcase/parties as Village arts salons strained though rocking energy, dry humor and artful rebellion--a “Die Yuppie Scum”, if you will, for the Trump years. This latest Pandemonium featured poetry of not only the post-punk sort, but neo-Brecht, neo-Beat and with bits of slam alternating driving, moving and alluring music. 

Rick Eckerle & co
The show opened with a dedication to the late Dr. John by singer-guitarist Rick Eckerle in a quartet that kicked out roots and bar-room songs, setting the mood in a most timeless way. 
He was followed by the emotive performance poets Annie Petrie (best line: “Mercury, go fuck yourself”) and San Franciscan KR Morrison who offered fine radical feminist pieces that are utterly necessary in this age of the Gorsuch court. Petrie, who later said she was in the mud at the original Woodstock, wore sunglasses and latter-day rainbows, but it was Morrison, of a considerably later generation, who embraced the retro-hippie vision with long straight hair and flowy outfit. For the hardcore folks in attendance, her militance was assured by way of shaved temples contrasting the Baez-do, but both poets reminded the house of the need to maintain outrage in times such as these.

Cait O’Riordan, former Pogues bassist, next performed a lilting acoustic guitar/vocal duet with Kath Green and then stand-up comic Susan Jeremy tore up the night with a timely set of LGBTQ+ hysterics. Bringing the edgy rock back into focus, NY Junk members Joe Sztabnik and Jeff Ward punched out the raunch before the evening’s host took the stage with Puma Perl & Friends. This ensemble magically blended provocative inner city spoken word, including moving reminiscence of Coney Island, with the best in fire music strained through thoughtful, tuneful arrangements. The front line of Perl, tenor saxophonist Danny Ray (seriously blue bar-walker, even if stationary throughout), screaming, shimmering, celebrated electric violinst Walter Steding (a Warhol protégé) mixed it up most artfully with guitarist Joff Wilson and it was all contained by Sztabnik’s bass and Dave Donen’s drums. This band is not to be missed.

Steve Dalachinsky
Jane LeCroy & Tom Abbs
Avant jazz poetry wizard Steve Dalachinsky, recently back from his latest Parisian tour, came up just after and wondered aloud how he might compete with Puma & Friends. However, did so with a sizzling set of poetry that calls into question the very nature of verbiage and shreds the poetic form with the panache of a spoken word Albert Ayler (and though he didn’t hawk it from the stage, Steve has a brilliant new book, Where Day and Night Become One, highly recommended). After the audience applause faded, another excellent performance poet, Jane LeCroy, and noted cellist Tom Abbs (though on guitar here) laid out a very special latent Brechtian array of compelling works. This pair, along with other musicians, often perform as the Icebergs, the implied coldness of which was far from evident, what with the heat emanating onstage.

Soul Cake
The evening closed with a stirring, rocking performance by power pop-rock trio Soul Cake with the aforementioned Joff Wilson, here as lead vocalist as well as lead guitarist, Laura Satvia on flute and Sarafe on bass, with Dave Donen on drums. They had me right from the quick sound-check (it’s rare to hear “PS, I Love You”, the flipside of the Beatles first single in clubs). Throughout, Wilson’s McCartney-inspired vocals (though one also hears the Trogg’s Reg Presley in there and possibly all of the Knickerbockers) soared and the band’s unique take on “Pipeline” and particularly “Eleanor Rigby”—with modified lyrics speaking to the tragedies of NYC’s homeless—had Bowery Electric simply shaking. And Wilson’s resemblance to Johnny Thunders couldn’t hurt either. A perfect ending to the kind of evening many had hopelessly assumed were relegated to the past. 

Thursday, June 6, 2019

article: Lest We Forget ED BLACKWELL

NYC Jazz Record, June 2019 issue


By John Pietaro

With his 1960 recording This is our Music, Ornette Coleman introduced his revolutionary quartet’s latest addition. In the liner notes he wrote of Ed Blackwell: “This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other’s places”. Not only did this landmark album demonstrate uncanny advancement in free jazz, it was the first recorded evidence of the drumset’s near total liberation. Blackwell’s path out, however, was not through the rejection of his instrument’s heritage, but its embrace.

Born in New Orleans, 1929, Edward Joseph Blackwell had ample access to tradition even as the music developed in new directions. During high school, he became a marching band staple, playing snare or tenor drum. In a 1981 Modern Drummer interview, Blackwell spoke of the pioneering drummer Paul Barbarin, a local hero who’d propelled the music’s development with Freddie Keppard, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Jimmie Noone. Blackwell cited Barbarin’s influence: “He used to…talk to me a lot about the drums and drum rolls; how he played and how he learned to play”.

Such defined focus rudiments offered the drummer that second line foundation unique to the Crescent City. The roots are easily evidenced by the drag and ratamacue flourishes he’d later spread to the entire kit. Ironically, Blackwell only began playing drumset in 1949, learning on the job. Studying with a local drummer (but simultaneously an ardent disciple of Max Roach), he adapted quickly and purchased his initial drumset from the all-female big band, the Sweethearts of Rhythm, after their break-up. Blackwell, along with Ellis Marsalis, joined clarinetist Alvin Batisste’s band, then in 1951 relocated to California, fatefully meeting Coleman. The pair established a musical partnership, shedding light on the sounds to come, but shunned by LA’s post-bop scene, Blackwell returned to New Orleans. Ornette moved to New York, bringing the youthful Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins along with the infamy of brutish naysayers.

Higgins’ departure in 1960 saw Blackwell’s noted return, resulting in the recordings This is Our Music and Free Jazz which affirmed Coleman’s legend. The quartet, sans leader, famously collaborated with John Coltrane for the Avant Garde, and reunited, released Ornette (1961), further expanding the free concept. From the opening track “W.R.U.”, Blackwell’s melodic vision was cast, and he carried that to the Five Spot for the historic sessions with the Eric Dolphy-Booker Little band. The drummer, by the mid-1960s, left Coleman but returned to the fold for Friends and Neighbors, Broken Shadows and Science Fiction, as well as a track with a Coleman quintet on Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band. Into the 1970s, his work with Karl Berger (their duos are especially poignant) at the Creative Music Studio, and then with Dewey Redman, Cherry and Haden in the band Old and New Dreams solidified him as an invaluable Harmolodic force.

Blackwell also spent a year in Africa studying and by 1976 began a long period teaching at Wesleyan University. Highly active throughout the 1970s and ‘80s though afflicted with kidney disease, Blackwell worked often with Cherry as well as Archie Shepp, Anthony Braxton, Joanne Brackeen, David Murray, Steve Coleman and many more. He died in 1992. Recalling Blackwell, Ornette Coleman later stated that he played drums like a wind instrument, offering a direct line of communication to musicians and listeners alike.


film review: We Are One: Blood Drum Spirit

NYC Jazz Record – June 2019 issue

We Are One: Blood Drum Spirit (2019)
Director: Sarah Pettinella. Producer: Royal Hartigan

Starring: Royal Hartigan, David Bindman, Art Hirahara, Wes Brown
 Directed by Sarah Pettinella, produced by Royal Hartigan, music by Blood Drum Spirit

Film review by John Pietaro

Royal Hartigan is a most vocal proponent of world music traditions. A professor in Ethnomusicology at Dartmouth as well as a lifelong student of culture, Hartigan is a singular force. The drummer-percussionist’s history extends to post-graduate study at Weselyan where he focused on African, Native American and Indian drumming and engaged in field research. Earlier, at Amherst, Hartigan concentrated on African American music with close tutelage under Ed Blackwell and coursework with Max Roach and Archie Shepp. The amalgam was a uniquely expansive view of jazz and improvisation. Hartigan performed and recorded with the late saxophonist/activist Fred Ho for decades, embarking on a career as steeped in international heritage as it is in building community. His own vehicle, Blood Drum Spirit, is a quartet enmeshed in this mission. The four musicians are featured in this powerful new documentary produced by Hartigan and directed by internationally acclaimed filmmaker and photographer Sarah Pettinella.

Saxophonist David Bindman is another Weselyan alumnus fusing world traditions with new music. A standard bearer of Downtown experimentation, he’s performed around the world and founded the Brooklyn Saxophone Quartet with Fred Ho. Pianist Art Hirahara has a career ranging from accompanist for vocalists to jazz composer and bandleader. He tours frequently in Japan and, like the others, Hiarhara was also a Fred Ho band member; his discography includes Ho’s Cal Massey tribute. Bassist Wes Brown first came to prominence in the ensembles of Wadada Leo Smith, with whom he continues to work, but his resume extends to Anthony Braxton, Earl Fatha Hines and, yes, Fred Ho. If there is a central fixture here, it’s not just Ho, but the baritone saxophonist’s commitment to social justice via Asian and African culture and the voices of the oppressed. Change realized through creativity.

Hartigan states in We Are One that upon first hearing African music, he recognized its relationship to jazz. “It brought me to a place that transcends everyday life” and as soon as he had the opportunity to do so, brought the band to Ghana. “You have to be in the culture with the people”, he explained.
True to form, the film documents much more than mere performances, but engagement and sharing. The quartet traveled to multiple African villages, first meeting with the elders of each and sharing in food, dance and traditional music before they brought out a drumset, electric keyboard, electric bass and a saxophone. Pettinella caught beautiful moments of Blood Drum Spirit creating music with village master musicians and average citizens alike. Expressions of joy on the faces of villagers was matched by those of the quartet who demonstrated deep respect for their hosts and sites like the W.E.B. DuBois Cultural Center. Scenes of the quartet jamming with locals and traveling throughout Ghana were interspersed with profiles of each of the four including clips of them at home and a wonderful segment of Hartigan tap dancing. There were also bits of interviews with global artists such as dancer Joann Thompson and master musician, dancer and international speaker Kwabene Boateng. The latter’s comment summed up the film’s core in two brief sentences: “Music can change the world. And I think it’s already done it”.

Monday, May 27, 2019

performance review: Ronnie Burrage: Tribute to Hamiet Bluiett

May 25, 2019, Sista’s Place, Brooklyn NY

Ronnie Burrage-drums, percussion, poetry, electronic keyboard, voice;  Kelvyn Bell-electric guitar, voice;  Donald Smith-piano, synthesizer;  Darrell Mixon-upright bass;  Kendrick Smith- straight alto saxophone, soprano saxophone

Performance review by John Pietaro

By the time Ahmed Abdullah greeted the capacity crowd at Sista’s Place, it sizzled in anticipation of this personal tribute to Hamiet Bluiett. Abdullah, who’d held Sun Ra’s trumpet chair for decades, serves as Sista’s music director and reminded the house that the late baritone saxophonist was a frequent performer at the Bedford-Stuyvesant night spot. This favorite son of St. Louis made an impact far beyond state-lines and generations, casting an art enraptured in African American culture and pride.

The concert was driven by drummer Ronnie Burrage, but a child when he first encountered Bluiett via the Black Artists Group (BAG). The saxophonist was a founding member of the legendary cultural activist organization and Burrage had come of age within its programming. By design, the band held strong connections to both leader and honoree: guitarist Kelvyn Bell followed Burrage to New York, circa 1978, and they worked together for Bluiett, Arthur Blythe and others. Pianist/synthesizer player Donald Smith is a veteran of various Oliver Lake ensembles, and bassist Darrell Mixon, another old friend, traveled from St. Louis for this event. He arrived in town with 28-year-old saxophonist Kendrick Smith, one of Bluiett’s final students, a formidable talent brandishing a sound rising from his feet through the length of his straight alto saxophone. Smith wields the horn’s lows masterfully, casting melodic flights as singular as his choice of instrument. His solos, cry-singing blue over fiery scarlet, inspired resounding applause that shook the room (especially on Bluiett’s moving “Deb”), but such responses were not limited to any one member of the band. 
Left to right: Donald Smith, Ronnie Burrage (obscured),
Kendrick Smith, Darrell Mixon, Kelvyn Bell. Photo by Pietaro

Bell’s stinging, rapid, sustained improvisations, classic by this time, were matched by a vocal with distinctive hand-manipulated vibrato. Donald Smith’s piano, thunderous, impressionistic and compelling, drew hollers, particularly on the band’s riveting take on “Oasis”, also an explosive Burrage feature. The drummer’s tireless montuno improv peppered by crushing accents threatened, it seemed, the very foundation of the club. But it was the woefully little-documented Mixon, he of high-end pizzicato runs and chop-heavy expansive techniques, that inspired riotous responses and calls for “More!”. Judging by the crowd throughout the set as well as the elation on stage, the spirit of Bluiett overwhelmed both the space and celestial ground well above.

Monday, May 13, 2019

CD review: GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches

NYC Jazz Record – May 2019

GREEN DOME, Thinking in Stitches (Case Study, 2019)

CD review by John Pietaro

Zeena Parkins- acoustic harp, concept, direction
Ryan Sawyer- trap and percussion
Ryan Ross Smith- prepared piano, electronics, modular synthesizer, live coding
If there’s a hidden soundscape between acoustic and electronic, live and tape or free and freer, Green Dome commands it. Rich in reverb, swathed in darkest colors, subtly haunting and almost hinting at a reconstructed score of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, harpist Zeena Parkins returns to the forefront with one of her boldest units. And that’s a wide swath for Downtown royalty like Parkins. One-time Rhys Chatham drummer Ryan Sawyer revels in artful subtlety and this line-up allows him welcoming atmosphere. His deft touch and masterful drive place him somewhere between Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones in the continuum, a floating, pelting, balladeer of percussion. Brake drums and metals accentuate his kit, or is that the modular synth, electronics and live coding of Ryan Ross Smith? Probably both. Smith is a composer and sound designer, so his approach here is focused and deeply alert to the macro experience. His prepared piano is an ideal counterpart to Parkins’ harp, whether colorfully trading phrases (as in “Hexagon’s Frame”) or blending sonorities (“Cyprus Lace”). And with Smith’s array of other-worldly echoes, Parkins is liberated from the arsenal of electronics she usually affixes to her harps. For this outing, she goes purely acoustic, and the natural chiming, singing resonance of the instrument is compelling. But listen as well to the industrial-sounding escalation of “Margaret Lace”, with Sawyer’s cymbal shading almost bending pitch, his growing attack downright merciless. 

Such a trio with varying palette and erudite arrangements, has more in common with a chamber ensemble than might normally be heard in a jazz context. But Thinking in Stitches’ set of experimental, improvisational works based on lace knitting patterns, are more fire music than 12-tone, particularly with Sawyer rounding the edges in flurries and coordinated assaults. But the rhythmic pulsations are communal as Parkins leans into her instrument intently on “Chevrons”, pulling at the strings and conjuring minimalism of a whole other sort. Here’s a sound journey into windblown fragments, art deco pathways and magical vistas.


NYC Jazz Record , November 2019 CHARLEE ELLERBE   Performing my poem for Bern "Dancing to Incessant June" at the 2019 Be...