Sunday, December 18, 2022

BEST OF 2022


THE MUSIC has experienced an expanse over recent years, particularly with spoken word and the other arts moving into a rediscovered place up front. As a poet and organizer, this aspect carries great personal weight. I feel this advancement--seen earlier in NYC strongholds of modernism, The Masses, dada, Mabel Dodge’s salon, the Harlem Renaissance, The New Masses, the Beat Generation, the Black Arts Movement, the New York School, renegade theatre, the cinema of transgression, punk, post-modernism, Art Against AIDS, the hip hop movement and the obvious strength of a united arts front--captures the very best in new music, free jazz, latter-day composition and a bold, Left outspokenness.

2022 produced new artists of a decidedly radical nature and only confirmed our veteran creatives’ stance at the “downtown” vertex. A wide array of ages, cultures, races and gender identities have happily claimed their rightful space on stage and are increasingly seen within the audiences of the hippest venues in this hippest of cities. To that end, we’ve seen a rise in cultural workers organizing, here and across the country, driving campaigns in theatres, colleges, museums and the press. These actions of arts and entertainment unions are occurring as a new generation of rad arts workers recognize the inherent power of collectivism and join within a labor movement that is experiencing an inspiring level of activism, much grown directly from the fight-back of the women’s marches, the BLM movement, and the protests on behalf of trans lives and the fight directly opposing the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade and the ongoing conservative banning of books. But we need to do even more to create the necessary balance for independent, daring arts to thrive. It requires a knowledge of where we came from as well as the fearless, fully inclusive push forward. It has always been about the advance, the struggle forward within a unified voice. John Reed, for one, called it well over a century ago:

 Muse, you have got a job before you,--

Come, buckle to it, I implore you.

I would embalm in deathless rhyme

The great souls of our little time:

Inglorious Miltons by the score,--

Mute Wagners,--Rembrandts, ten or more,--

And Rodins, one to every floor.

In short, those unknown men of genius

Who dwell in the third-floor gangrenous,

Reft of their rightful heritage

By a commercial, soulless age,

Unwept, I might add—and unsung,

Insolent, but entirely young.

Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,

We dare to think as Uptown wouldn't dare,

Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;

What care we for a dull old world censorious

When each is sure he'll fashion something glorious?

Blessed art thou, Anarchic Liberty

Who asketh nought but joy of such as we!

-John Reed, “The Day in Bohemia”, 1913

ON, THEN, to my picks for the Best of 2022....

CRITICS POLL 2022: New Music/Jazz/Indie

 John Pietaro



                     Lifetime achievement: Amina Claudine Myers 

 Violin: Gwen Laster

Viola: Melanie Dyer

Cello: Lester St. Louis

Harp: Zeena Parkins


Flute: Nicole Mitchell

Clarinet: Ned Rothenberg

Bassoon: Claire de Brunner


Trumpet: Mac Gollehon

French Horn: Vincent Chancey

Trombone: Steve Swell

Tuba: Joe Daley


Soprano saxophone: Sam Newsome

Alto saxophone: Darius Jones

Tenor saxophone: James Brandon Lewis

Baritone saxophone: Claire Daly


Electric guitar: Chris Cochrane

Acoustic guitar: Marco Cappelli

Various fretted instrument: Cynthia Sayer (plectrum banjo)


Upright bass: Ken Filiano

Electric bass: Jamaaladeen Tacuma


Piano: Mara Rosenbloom


Drumset: Michael Wimberly

Percussion: Warren Smith

Vibraphone: Patricia Brennan


Multi-instrumentalist: Scott Robinson


Vocals: Fay Victor (female), Eric Mingus (male)

Spoken Word: Tracie Morris (female),                                                                           George Wallace (male)


DUO: MorriSharp (Elliott Sharp and Tracie Morris) 


SMALL GROUP: Ceramic Dog (Marc Ribot, Shazad Ismally, Ches Smith)


MID-SIZED BAND: Gene Pritsker’s Sonic Liberation


LARGE ENSEMBLE: Ed Palermo Big Band 



1)    John Zorn’s New Masada Quartet, 6/11, the Sultan Room, Brooklyn NY

2)    Elliott Sharp & Eric Mingus with Steve Swell and Andrea Centazzo, 10/10/22, White Box Gallery, NYC 

3)    Catalytic Sound Festival (Zeena Parkins, Ned Rothenberg, Chris Corsano, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Brandon Lopez, Sylvie Courvoisier, Ceceila Lopez, David Watson, Lotte Anker), 12/10/22, Shift 411, Brooklyn NY

4)    Ictus Festival (Andrea Centazzo, Chris Cochrane, Sam Newsome, Michael Foster, Jessica Pavone, Dafna Nephtali, Stephan Haynes, Jeff Schwartz, Wendy Eisenberg, Shazad Ismally), 10/6/22, Shift 411, Brooklyn NY

5)    Christian Mc Bride Three with Greg Tardy and Jonathon Blake, 8/11/22, Village Vanguard


          VENUES: Café Bohemia (Manhattan), Shift 411 (Brooklyn)




 New Releases

1)    Sun Ra Arkestra, Living Sky (Omni Sound) 

2)    Ches Smith, Interpret It Well (Pyroclastic)

3)    Elliott Sharp and Eric Mingus, Songs From the Rogue State (Zoar)

4)    We Free Strings, Love in the Form of Sacred Outrage (ESP-Disk)

5)    Bi Ba Doom, Graceful Collision (Astral Spirits)

6)    Mac Gollehon, The End is the Beginning (Nefarious Industries)

7)    Heroes Are Gangleaders, LeAutoRoiOgraphy (577)

8)    Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite (Composers Concordance)

9)    John Zorn, Meditations on the Tarot (Tzadik)

10)Cint Bahr, Puzzle Box (MoonJune)


        Historical albums:

1)    No Safety, Spill (Cuneiform) 

2)    Cecil Taylor, The Complete, Legendary, Live Return Concert (Oblivion)

3)    Blondie: Against the Odds, 1974-1982 (Capitol)

4)    Nikki Giovanni, The Way I Feel (Modern Harmonic)

5)    The Dance, Doo Dah Dah (Modern Harmonic)

6)    Jill Kroesen, I Really Want to Bomb You (Modern Harmonic)

Vocal album: Elliott Sharp and Eric Mingus, Songs from the Rogue State (Zoar)


Debut album: Bi Ba Doom, Graceful Collision (Astral Spirits)


Live album: No Safety, Live at the Knitting Factory (Cuneiform)

 Solo album: Ava Mendoza, New Spells (Relative Pitch)

Large ensemble album: Sun Ra Arkestra, Living Sky (Omni Sound)


Record labels of the year:

1)    Cuneiform

2)    577

3)    Shimmy-Disc

4)    ESP-Disk

5)    Modern Harmonic

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Album review: Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite


Gene Pritsker’s Sound Liberation, Let’s Save the World Suite (Composers Concordance 2022)

--originally published in The NYC Jazz Record--

Gene Pritsker is the kind of left-wing composer that proliferated in the 1930s in the John Reed Club and its off shoot, the Composers Collective of New York which boasted the talents of Aaron Copland, Elie Siegmeister, Marc Blitzstein, Ruth Crawford, Charles Louis Seeger, Henry Cowell and other modernist rads. Pritsker, founder of Composers Concordance, has often thrived on messages of social justice within his work and uses activism not only as fodder for compositions but also entire conceptual albums (2020’s Protest was cultured by the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killings which bore it). 

Pritsker’s muse is a restless one, and through it, he very successfully balances the roles of artist and militant, contemporary composer and free improviser, guttural rocker and aerial jazzer. His latest is the 7-movement Let’s Save the World Suite, realized by his Sound Liberation ensemble. The band’s name recalls Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, but the suite’s title bears resemblance to ‘Change the World’, the Daily Worker column of revolutionary writer Mike Gold. Even with so much history inherent, this suite is based on the poetry of “proser-poet-performer” Erik T. Johnson whose words and declamation are utterly contemporary. Behind and through Johnson’s spoken word performances (on three cuts), Pritsker’s music soars, testifies and exemplifies the struggle.

The work opens with a gripping prelude, commencing in the leader’s haunting, mildly atonal guitar intro and the somber melody heard in Franz Hackl’s resounding trumpet and Paul Carlon’s tenor saxophone. This edition of Sound Liberation is small, a combo really, rounded out by Jose Moura (electric bass) and Damien Bassman (drumset), and of course the central voice of Johnson. He enters, proclaiming:

Listen honey, there’s not enough pain in the world.

If there was, someone would notice,

Do something about it, give it a pulpit,

Found it a faith, pay dearly to take its name in vain;

Then in reason, overthrow it…

The music attaches itself to his reading, coating word and breath, until the melodic content seems to transform into the speaker’s own voice. This opening line becomes the title of the Suite’s second movement, built on an early ‘70s groove (think Cobham’s Spectrum, heavy on the bass). Carlon takes the first solo of the set, far too briefly, resounding in old-school Blue Note as much as R&B, culminating in Pritsker’s harrowing guitar improv, its rapid-fire fretwork, squealing octave-leaps and distortion claiming the piece as something post-Altamont. An instrumental interlude follows and here the quasi-bossa rhythm and open harmonies of the horns contrast beautifully with the leader’s deftly dropped sus chords and pedal point, the effect being ominous as ancient modes singularly wield. Movement IV, “We Don’t Have Much Time Left”, with a lingering modal quality raked over a vexing, funky, odd-time signature which seems to glide from rough 7/8 to 5/8 and back to common time. It’s just the traverse for poetry which begins:

The train is waiting but we’re too poor for the ticket.

Once the improv section takes flight, Pritsker seems to channel the expressionist soundscapes of Robert Fripp, but one hears John McLaughlin and bits of Jimi Hendrix in there, too. This sets off the unmistakable progressive rock and fusion woven through the next interlude, its biting unisons culminating in Bassman’s sizzling, crackling drum solo. However, movement VI, “Or Pretend to Beauty” slows the atmosphere with a throbbing 2-beat recalling Weimar-era Berlin, Pritsker’s guitar doing its best plectrum banjo mimicry and Bassman leaning into toms and snare. And yet with the horns sounding like a hard bop frontline, the already complex melody only grows outward with rhythmic twists as the work expands.

The album closes with Postlude, a sister to the Prelude but with new musical forays and poetry so dark, it speaks to the ages:

Said the man to a woman, said the man to the man,

Went with the children; held them in his hand.

Over cloud black hills, there’s a stream running white;

It don’t slate no thirst or pretend to beauty.

The stream is shut up.

“I’m taking you there”, said the woman to the child.

“The hell you will”, said the man to them all.

Cried the children to the mother; cried the sister to the dead.

Laugh the man to them all; put them

In his hand.

CREDITS: Gene Pritsker - composer/guitar , Franz Hackl – trumpet , Paul Carlon – sax , Jose Moura – bass , Damien Bassman – drums , Erik T. Johnson - narrator/poet

  1. Prelude
  2. There’s Not Enough Pain in the World
  3. Interlude
  4. We Don’t Have Much Time Left
  5. Interlude No. 2
  6. Or Pretend to Beauty
  7. Postlude

Monday, April 25, 2022



Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, April 2022

Heroes Are Gang Leaders, LeAutoRoiOgraphy (577, 2022)

Nelson Cascais, Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte (Fundacao GDA, 2022)

Eliot Cardinaux, Will McAvoy, Max Goldman, Out of Our Systems (The Bodily Press, 2022)

-CD review-

The heritage of jazz poetry reaches far, with roots in the slave poem, work song and blues narrative, and blossoming within the Harlem Renaissance. The driving mechanism for the poet within jazz has been the music’s rhythm and phrasing, as well as its socio-politics, a topographical schematic if you will, with which to construct verse and, in performance settings, to present the execution of same. At times, however, the music has been wholly created around standing literature and these recent albums were scored to integrate the artforms while still embracing sound, shape, cause and color.

Heroes Are Gang Leaders is the contemporary ensemble most fully embodying this heritage while not only acknowledging the socio-political but fully embracing its necessary radicalism. Founded in 2014 and led by poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, the band is an organic multi-art event "dedicated to the sound extensions of literary text and original composition”, as per . For LeAutoRoiOgraphy Heroes Are Gang Leaders--a dozen strong!—was recorded live at Paris’ Sons D’Hiver Festival performing a commemoration of Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones, hence the title). Though some of these selections were initially heard on earlier studio album, The Amiri Baraka Sessions, these captures are vital, with the band coming to full power on stage. Featured musicians James Brandon Lewis (tenor saxophone, also the band’s composer), Melanie Dyer (viola) and Devin Brahja Waldman (alto saxophone) in the company of vocalist/spoken word artist Nettie Chickering, and poets Randall Horton and Bonita Lee Penn, as well as the leader himself, profoundly bring the inspiration of Baraka into the here and now. Chickering’s looming presence and Lewis’ smoldering music on the 3-movement “Amina”, for Amina Baraka, the poet/actress who is Amiri’s widow, adds a beautiful gravity to the atmosphere. Chickering calls out on the first movement, “The Dutchman’s Three-Buttoned Suit” (referring to Baraka’s commanding drama The Dutchman):

Damn was it something I said?

Did I do something wrong?...

Were there more people burnt as witches than

Starting a revolution over the price of tea…

Lewis and Dyer, and then double bassist Luke Stewart, pianist Jenna Camille and guitarist Brandon Moses, take to the skies, painting it darkest blue and then purple, emitting an interactive soundscape which feeds into a network of voices, both spoken and sang. Quotes from some of Baraka’s most powerful works are woven through poetics and emotional releases on Penn’s “Poetry iz Labor”, a statement that Amina Baraka includes in her works till this day. And Section three, “Forensic Report” artfully combines classic free improvisation with spoken word: War-gasm!

“Shrimpy Grits” has Ellis up front along with Waldman whose alto brandishes an amazingly diverse collection of timbres (in every setting, his horn so easily mimics a soprano or C-melody saxophone), but the full ensemble tosses an aural palette at the hall’s ceiling, the drippings splattering in flourishes. The title work speaks to the progression of Baraka’s writing and activist career over years, with Chickering singing over Camille’s moving piano work, most akin to musical theatre or cabaret until the full ensemble enters, soaring through gorgeously advanced harmonies. Lewis’ admiration of Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble, and Karl Berger becomes evident as the horns, particularly the aerial trumpet of Heru Shabaka-Ra, and the thrilling, melodic drummer Warren Cruddup III herald in the new day that Baraka spent a lifetime seeking out. The core of the album, “Mista Sippy”, is bold sonic and literary commentary on the fallout from American racism.

The best kept secret in American politics…


Emoted testimony, sloping jazz, dramatic dialog, gospel and avant blues pervade, a veritable cornucopia of rebellion. Brief solos by Dyer, Lewis, Shabaka-Ra and Waldman are a captivating gateway to the poetry of Horton and Ellis. On closer “Sad Dictator” Chickering sings through Ellis’ poetry as Penn raps Amina Baraka’s empowering “I Wanna Make Freedom”. The longing in Shabaka-Ra’s horn recalls Don Cherry’s lamentations while the best of New Thing jazz, performance art and protest song cross-pollinate in real time. Ellis’ outpouring of literary social justice, fueled by that of the Barakas, should serve as the soundtrack to every struggle for social justice within range. As Amiri once noted: “I think anybody who is serious about language, always sees the written as a conduit for the spoken for the perception of reality. The spoken word is alive.”

On Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte, Lisbon’s Nelson Cascais, double bassist and composer, offers a project honoring the great British novelist and poet. The album is comprised of ten pieces, six of which feature the brilliant, somber writings of Bronte, woven together to depict the haunts of her times. Claudio Alves, in a clear but quietly moving tenor, conjures her words to life, emoting within a restraint most Victorian. On the opening track, “The Night is Darkening Round Me”, following a brief solo bass introduction and sinewy alto saxophone-led melody, Alves softly donates in a cautious sing-song voice:

Clouds beyond clouds above me,

Wastes beyond wastes below;

But nothing drear can move me,

I will not, cannot go

The saxophonist, Ricardo Toscano, lushly expands the piece’s direction with valiant, terse improvisations, churning the intensity with pianist Oscar Marcelino, drummer Joao Lopes Pereira and the leader’s bass. All aspects of the writer are embraced in this set. For Bronte’s deftly moving “All Hushed and Still Within the House”, the ensemble’s improvisations match and then goes beyond the complexity of emotions found within the source poetry, that which demarcates the loneliness and losses of her brief life (Bronte died at age 30, following the deaths of her mother and siblings).

All hushed and still within the house;
Without – all wind and driving rain;
But something whispers to my mind,
Through rain and through the wailing wind,
Never again.
Never again? Why not again?
Memory has power as real as thine.

The title track feels much more through-composed and vibraphonist Eduardo Cardinho adds silvery highlights at once thickening and aerating the tapestry. His solo statements reach beyond the mere sonority of the instrument, with Cardinho almost grasping the bars for rhythmic marimba-like rolls and alluring motifs.

Cold in the earth—and fifteen wild Decembers,

From those brown hills, have melted into spring.

Over several instrumental pieces, the band demonstrates skillful musicianship within Cascais’s largely tonal works. “Intimations of Mortality” is reminiscent of Steps Ahead, clouded of texture with a saxophone/vibraphone lead and harboring an inner pulsation subtly evocative of the ensemble’s Portuguese culture. And as the album moves toward the finale, harmonies darken (the piano intro to “Fall, Leaves, Fall”, thickets of beautiful atonality, is indicative) and both music and poetry turn pensive, almost still. Ironically, the melody here recalls strains of Coltrane’s “Moment’s Notice”, albeit heard in a slow tempo. Later, such echoes fade and it’s within the art song tradition that Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte comes to a close. Delightfully packaged, the cover imagery of a windswept landscape sets off inserts including a translucent “contents” page and a fold-out of the included Bronte poems. This collection is a lasting document.

Reading his own poetry with aplomb and removal, poet, pianist and composer Eliot Cardinaux continues the music/verse travail with bassist Will McEvoy and drummer Max Goldman on Out of Our Systems. For album opener “Lying in the House of You (Piano Day)”, Cardinaux’s piano only enters at the half-way mark, ceding to McEvoy’s upright bass bowed just off the instrument’s bridge, and the whispery drumming of Goldman.

The Silent: cold fire,

The wolf’s eyes flicker into no one’s language…

A searching, distant sounding work, particularly once the leader’s piano enters, its gorgeously complex harmonies modulate through the darkness and jarring light of his composition. The rhythm section, as it were, is orchestral in approach; Goldman makes grand use of gamelan-like choked, muffled cymbals played with mallets.

Cardinaux’s means of threading art forms is explained in his recent statement on the Poems and Poetics blog: “I am a poet of the lyric lineage, favoring the lucidly bent, bare syntax of George Oppen, & the strange torn off clarity of Paul Celan. Mine are poems of compressed language, of a self folded in on itself…” The austere but deeply emotional confluence is also found within Oppen: an ex-pat in Paris, he returned to New York, founding the Objectivist school of poetry. However, during the Great Depression, he ceased writing to become a community and labor organizer within the Communist Party. A decorated War veteran, he was driven out of the U.S. under threat of the House Un-American Activities Committee, returning home in 1958. Oppen was, a decade later, awarded the Pulitzer.  

As we saw with the Cascai album, Cardinaux is sure to reflect his poetics within the music and the lengthy instrumental section of “Toxin”, like Evans’ and Bley’s early ‘60s modernism, is an intellectual brand of jazz driven by restlessness. Further, McAvoy’s “Unwound”, one of two compositions he contributed to the disc, is gray, pensive, sparse of melody, sparser still of harmonies. It features his bass deliciously repulsing the framework, and then Goldman’s solo of artfully deconstructed triplets, leading in a slow, pervasive lessening and then muting of emotion. Such darkness drove the life of Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew who witnessed Kristallnacht, lived in a Nazi-occupied ghetto where he translated Shakespeare, and finally escaped both a prison camp and the Soviet bloc. Living out his days in Paris, Celan struggled with emotional turmoil and berating obscurity.

So much of both poets is felt in this collection, and visualized, too, in the Zoe Christiansen artwork, but Cardinaux himself remains the defining pulsation. The improvised fire music about “A Black Box for the Holy Ghost”, its poetry of doubt, denial, reimagining rebellion, perhaps guilt within the sound thicket exemplifies Out of Our Systems as our necessary step in the tradition.

Maria, Maria, Maria…

Uncontained testing certain freedom…

The temple stands for the midnight cipher…

Negation, negation, negation…



Heroes Are Gang Leaders

Thomas Sayers Ellis, bandleader poet, James Brandon Lewis, tenor sax, Luke Stewart, bass, Melanie Dyer, viola, vocals, Nettie Chickering, voice, Jenna Camille, piano, vocals, Randall Horton, poet, Devin Brahja Waldman, alto sax, synthesizer, Bonita Lee Penn, poet, Heru Shabaka-ra, trumpet, Brandon Moses, guitar, Warren "Trae" Crudup, III, drums

Amina (The Dutchman's Three Buttoned Suit / Poetry Iz Labor / Forensic Report)

The Shrimpy Grits


Mista Sippy

 Sad Dictator (I Wanna Make Freedom)


Nelson Cascai, Remembrance: The Poetry of Emily Bronte (Fundacao GDA, 2022)

Cláudio Alves: voice . Ricardo Toscano: alto sax . Eduardo Cardinho: vibraphone . Óscar Marcelino da Graça : piano and synths . Nelson Cascais: bass . João Lopes Pereira: drums

The Night Is Darkening Round Me


Ellis Bell

Shall Earth No More Inspire Thee

Intimations Of Mortality

All Hushed And Still Within The House

Fall Leaves Fall



She Dried Her Tears

Eliot Cardinaux, Will McAvoy, Max Goldman, Out of Our Systems (The Bodily Press, 2022)

Eliot Cardinaux: piano, poetry, compositions; Will McEvoy: double bass, compositions; Max Goldman: drums, cymbals, percussion

Lying in the House of You (Piano Day)

Little Waltz



A Black Box for the Holy Ghost

When We Went (Someone Else's Mystery)


Saturday, April 23, 2022

Performance review: ELLIOT SHARP live film score


Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, John Pietaro, NY@Night column, May 2022

Elliott Sharp, live film score

White Box Artspace, New York NY

 Elliott Sharp is a Downtown original. Composer, guitarist and woodwind player of eminence, his music, more than four decades into such a career, maintains a sense of wonder and innovation. Among his most profound pieces are those created collaboratively, and this was evidenced at the Whitebox Artspace (April 5). Sharp, playing an 8-string electric guitar/bass further expanded by effects, performed live to segments of film by Janene Higgins. The designer/video artist’s work is as severe, expansive and mercurial as the East Village itself (her alliances with Zeena Parkins, Christian Marclay, Ikue Mori, many others, speaks volumes) and these selections from Sharp’s opera installations, and a work with interdisciplinary artist Rena Anakwe, were visually compelling and sonically riveting. Port Bou, an opera based on the final moments of the great Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, just prior to his execution by the Nazis, sports dark fascist imager countered forcefully by Sharp’s hammer-ons, tapping and long held distorted tones. The opera installation Filiseti Mekidesi of 2018 explores the search for solace and belonging by refugees via intertwined genome-like designs and visions of deep space. The score (pre-recorded but enhanced by Sharp’s live performance) featured repetition and phasing in the flute and brass sections and throbbing percussion, but this was far from the minimalist brand. And Die Grosst Fugue (2021) was an emotional firestorm, depicting Beethoven at 250, mad, detached, deaf and falling into fugue states which had Sharp’s searing, canonic guitar lines conjuring Robert Fripp over stunning visuals.

Album review: Javon Jackson/Nikki Giovanni, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni


Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, May 2022

Javon Jackson, The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni (Solid Jackson 2022)

                                                                            CD review 

Nikki Giovanni is a national treasure, a landmark in the annals of the Civil Rights and Black Liberation struggles and a stalwart poet of renown and a certain fearlessness. Presently, just shy of her 80th birthday, Giovanni continues to be tireless in her roles as a Virginia Tech distinguished professor and as a vital literary figure. Her sizeable body of work has primarily focused on the socio-political, but never with a loss to art; she is living, breathing evidence that works of protest need not be fleeting.

Giovanni has a long history as a performance poet within the Black Arts Movement and several of her most important records of the 1970s featuring commanding spoken word with jazz or gospel backing by David Fathead Newman, Cornell Dupree, Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie and others were deeply impactful. Happily, the Modern Harmonic label has, just this year, re-released several of these historic works. In contrast, on her new album with Javon Jackson, he late of the Jazz Messengers, Giovanni stands as guide, surely inspiration, who selected the spirituals that comprise the album. While that is of great significance, her direct participation is leveled at only two pieces. High points of The Gospel According to Nikki Giovanni include “Wade in the Water” and the single track featuring the poet, “Night Song”. The latter is notable as Giovanni’s only recording as a vocalist. Further, it is dedicated to the late, great Nina Simone, a dear friend of Giovanni’s. A lasting part of Simone’s repertoire, “Night Song” is a Charles Strouse/Lee Adams number from the Broadway musical production of Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy (playwright Odets was a fighting cultural worker of the ‘30s). The poet’s voice, appropriately strained with age, easily depicts her long and noble struggle as well as the warm connection to a lost friend. “Wade in the Water”, an allegory of revolution, is here expanded by Giovanni’s “A Very Simple Gift”:

i should imagine we shall lose our souls
since we have so blatantly put them up
for sale and glutted the marketplace
thereby depressing the price

Jackson’s bold-faced tone as a tenor saxophonist is quite the match for this body of work, mid-ranged, he exudes Coltrane’s “Alabama”, particularly with the moody, dark interpretations of “Wade in the Water” and especially “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. Jeremy Manasia’s piano thrives on the Freedom Summer influences, flawlessly capturing the atmospherics, so profound, so grounded, and Jackson organically touches upon the encoded messages built into these works which guided liberation from slavery. While a powerful authenticity is felt in many selections, somehow there are points when the material settles into an uncomfortable, possibly unforgiveable “soft jazz” realm. Most vexing is the bossa nova that became of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”. Largely, however, this record makes a relevant adjunctive statement to Giovanni’s earlier albums, Truth is on Its Way, That’s the Way that I Feel and Like a Ripple on a Pond, all of which remain highly recommended.


Feature article: L Shankar


Originally published in The NYC Jazz Record, April 2022 feature


To describe L. Shankar as a chameleon is nothing short of trite. The violinist’s drive toward change has continuously been in the service of growth. Shankar’s tapestry embraces Indian classical, free jazz, fusion, folk and world music, pop, rock, dance, and no wave. This global view guided his founding of Shakti with John McLaughlin, and cast a mind-numbing CV boasting Jan Garbarek, Don Cherry, Lou Reed, Alice Coltrane, Frank Zappa, Ed Blackwell, Swans, Peter Gabriel, Kenny Wheeler, Public Image Ltd, and Madonna. And while reveling in such creative ventures, Shankar, so committed to the experience, developed a reputation as vocalist rivaling his fame as a violinist, and has been known to alter both name and appearance to fit a given musical moment. This month at Roulette he’ll perform a fusion of Carnatic and Hindustani ragas and world sounds with tabla drummer Abhijit Banerjee and mrdangam player Rohan Krishnamurthy. Such fluidity is born of an inexhaustible spirit. “I know it’s confusing”, Shankar explained, brushing back the strawberry-blonde locks of recent years. “For the last two albums I went back to ‘L. Shankar’, though many recall my ECM years when I was simply ‘Shankar’. But I’ve been billed as ‘Shenkar’ on pop recordings. This gives you a clean slate. I’ve been around for some time and listeners sometimes don’t want anything else, so, I become what’s needed.”

Shankar was born in Madras, India, 1950, relocating to Sri Lanka where his father V. Lakshminarayana was a music professor. Shankar’s mother, L. Seethalakshmi, was a vocalist and veena player, and the children were viscerally engaged in music. Formal tutelage in voice began at age two, and within several years Shankar was studying violin and mridangam. At seven-years-old, he’d performed in concert, but the family fled the area during the 1958 ethnic riots, returning to India. Several years later, Shankar and his brothers L. Vaidyanathan and L. Subramaniam began performing as a professional trio. While they found acclaim playing Indian classical music, Shankar desired expanse, the blending of Carnatic (southern) and Hindustani (northern) styles. But experimentalism was met with consternation. “In India those who were close minded were afraid of the dark. People have to learn that there’s light in darkness. But I cannot stop at the simple. We must educate the listener”.

Indian culture flourished in the west throughout the 1960s, from Gandhi’s teachings, already decades old, to trends in yoga, meditation, even Nehru collars. Integration began as early as the 1950s when U.N. delegations presented sitar master Ravi Shankar (no relation) to the U.S. Within a decade the sitar was heard on commercial records, most influentially to western ears via George Harrison of the Beatles. But traditionalists shunned the opportunities and, seeing no room for advancement, the violinist moved to the US in 1969, studying at Wesleyan University. “The cold was hard to get used to, but no one was telling me what to do. John McLaughlin came to Wesleyan to study veena and we started jamming. I told him he can apply the same music he’d been playing to Indian music. Jimmy Garrison was also teaching in Massachusetts.”

1975 saw the premiere of Shakti, the ensemble Shankar founded with McLaughlin and brilliant percussionists Zakir Hussain and Vikku Vinayakram. The guitarist’s celebrity as both a protégé of Miles and Mahavishnu Orchestra helmsman foresaw Shakti’s path to fame, yet Shankar was uncertain. “Our first gig was at the Bottom Line. We were all sitting on stage, never expecting what the future might hold”, but suddenly there were world tours with Weather Report. Shankar, by then living in NYC, recorded three critically acclaimed albums with Shakti, crossing paths with luminaries. Looking back on the period, Shankar explains how such multi-culturalism developed: “Improvisation is central to Indian music. It goes on as long as you want; you can play until the cow comes home. I’ll sing for 14 hours, play violin, without being tired. I can travel and still focus. I meditate within myself so every time I’m playing, it’s like playing in my living room, even if in a stadium filled with people.”

The stadiums continued even after Shakti’s dissolution. Shankar toured with Frank Zappa who then signed the violinist to his label, releasing Touch Me There in 1979. It featured Shankar’s electric 5-string and standard violin with guitarist Phil Palmer and drummer Simon Phillips. Zappa’s vocal on one cut, split with Ike Willis from his own band, demarcates the endorsement given Shankar. Prominent is “Darlene”, a beautifully flowing work of continuous meter shifts which the violinist continues to revisit. “It’s one of my most complex pieces; it includes so many cycles. I had just come off a tour of India and the band rehearsed in England for ten days. But “Darlene” required 57 takes”, he explained.

However, the boundary shredding continued. In 1980 Shankar reconceived his instrument, designing the electric 10-string double violin which covers the orchestral string family’s range. “Some said I was ruining the instrument. In India I had a press conference with 500 in attendance. I told them we had to be open, that no one can stop time. The audience in the past was 60 years old, but after we started expanding the music, the youth came.” The instrument was unveiled on Face Value, the acclaimed solo debut of drummer/vocalist Phil Collins, and Shankar’s own Who’s to Know? with the violinist comfortably straddling atmospheric hit “In the Air Tonight” and ECM’s expansive sonorities. “Manfred (Eicher) put me on a long European tour, a double bill with Don Cherry and Ed Blackwell. I had no band, so I used effects and asked them to join me on some pieces. Don really loved Indian music and I invited him to a big show with Alice Coltrane, Trilok Gurtu and Zakir Hussain: the Bombay Jazz Festival. We played an outdoor stage on the beach.” Among his ECM releases, Song for Everyone remains most memorable. “It’s a highlight that stays with me, the melodies keep coming up in my playing. We toured this widely, sometimes including Nana Vasconcelos. In (Eastern Bloc) Yugoslavia there was a huge concert. When we ended, the audience was crying.”

Over years, Shankar’s contributions to both planes has been continuous. “When I worked with Peter Gabriel and Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ, I was only on vocals. It’s funny because I was raised as a singer and practice voice as a primary thing. When you hear my violin, I’m singing.” Shankar toured with Gabriel and became part of the “Sun City” record, raising awareness for Black South Africans, and then joined the Princess Trust and Human Rights Now tours.

Composing for film saw his relocation to Hollywood, supplementing work with Talking Heads, Marianne Faithful, Sting, and much-loved collaborations with the World Music Institute. “Madonna came to Gabriel shows and loved my Passion of the Christ score. Her producer asked me to lay down tracks and the next day, Madonna wanted me to tour with her. But I needed to play my own music. I didn’t begin playing for money. I chose to continue my education.” Shankar’s progressive vision was never at the expense of artistry. “Lou Reed asked me if I can play real emotion in four bars. I said four bars is more than enough”.

Shankar’s released two dozen albums under his own leadership and guested with Archie Shepp, Yoko Ono, Material, Adam Rudolph, Maurice Jarre (Jacob’s Ladder score), Ginger Baker, and Swans, and was prominent on Public Image Ltd’s Album which boasted Tony Williams, Bill Laswell, Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Nicky Skopelitis, Jonas Hellborg, Malachi Favors, and Steve Turre. He returned to his homeland in 2016 to teach at the Shiva Conservatory. “Music is about unity. I’m a U.S. citizen and can return any time, but I left when Trump was elected. There was so much hatred.” Still, he’s maintained a busy, fluid career. 2020s Chepleeri Dream, composed during brutal storms in India and bearing the sounds of relentless downpour, remains a global sensation. Now, amid a 7-city tour, Shankar muses, “You must be humble. It’s very important as a human being to embrace others as students of life. If I thought I knew everything, I’d simply stop playing.”



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