Music Review: Brian Blade

Appeared in the September 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

For most drummer-led ensembles, the idea of an album with nary a drum solo smacks of sacrilege. For Brian Blade & the Fellowship Band, though, individual vainglory has always been trumped by a strong sense of collective purpose. Season Of Changes skillfully continues the trend and marks the group’s first outing in eight years. Among the changes this season: The septet has been trimmed to six with the departure of pedal steel player Dave Easley, who added salt-of-the-earth ambiance on the group’s first two discs.

In keeping with the Fellowship Band’s contemplative esthetic, the new release is steeped in spiritual yearning. Blade interlaces his compositions with dramatic flair and soft sobriety, asserting himself on the skins when needed but never overwhelming the group’s tender balance of voices. The album’s compositional jewels come from pianist Jon Cowherd. On the epic title track and “Return Of The Prodigal Son,” Cowherd’s weighty melodic statements channel both elegiac and joyous spirits, all over a harmonic framework that invites probing, occasionally soaring solos from guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, alto saxophonist Myron Walden and tenor saxophonist Melvin Butler.

“Rubylou’s Lullaby” eases the listener into the album nicely with stark piano and guitar, but needs more edge once tenor and bass clarinet join in with the melody—the reeds sound a little too sweet for their own good. Although a few moments on Season of Changes verge on melodrama, the album as a whole is a genuinely moving piece of work. Rarely does such unabashedly serious, artful music come in such a listenable package.

Music Review: Stanton Moore Trio

Appeared in the July 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

Stanton Moores ability to exude raw power without resorting to bombast has made him one of the most sought-after drummers in the South, and he often hangs with New Orleans heavies such as George Porter Jr. and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Its no surprise, then, that his past recordings as a leader were peppered with special guests of all ilk.

Not so on Emphasis (On Parenthesis), on which Moore downsizes to a classic organ trio. Hes joined here by guitarist Will Bernard and keyboardist Robert Walter, who also provided company on his funky 2006 date, III (Telarc). Emphasis extols the virtues of simplicity in all its swaggering glory, with a program of belt-busting soul-jazz from a group that is beginning to find its collective voice.

As per usual, Moore pounds his primal urges heavy and thick. On the joyful opener, (Late Night At The) Maple Leaf, he builds on Walters gritty organ intro with a loose but in-the-pocket beat, proceeding over the course of the tune to profess his love for the press roll. Most of the album maintains that playful exuberance, although the group reigns in the energy on the mysterious (Sifting Through The) African Diaspora and the downtempo, Galactic-esque (I Have) Super Strength. The latter is the biggest departure from most of the albums freewheeling feel, adding jingle bell samples and a looped recording of Walters four-year-old son proclaiming his might (hence the tunes name).

Moores thunderous drums can wear on the ears after a while (he tends to dominate the mix), but he thankfully rotates equipment to keep things fresh. His switch to bone-dry drums is particularly welcome on Over (Compensatin), a 70s-inspired grease groove on which Walter and Bernard wail for the groups most satisfying jam.

Jazz Loft Project Digs Up Photographer's Musical Buried Treasures

Appeared in the April 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine; photo by W. Eugene Smith, courtesy of the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona.

After a few listens, Thelonious Monk determined exactly what he wanted. It was 1959, and he and arranger Hall Overton were sitting in a dingy Manhattan loft, spinning his trio’s recording of “Little Rootie Tootie” and trying to orchestrate the number for tentet.

Monk’s revelation: “Let the band play the whole thing—the whole thing like it is,” he said. “Where harmony is, you put harmony.” His spur-of-the-moment idea—the ambitious, full-band transcription of the whole tune, frenetic solo included—would become the centerpiece of his historic Town Hall performance and Riverside recording.

Most such moments of spontaneous creative conception fade quietly into annals of time. But this moment, along with more than 3,000 hours of rehearsals, jam sessions and mundane urban existence, was captured on tape by photographer W. Eugene Smith.

Smith had holed himself up in the loft with a group of artists and musicians following a nervous breakdown. With the building’s four pianos attracting a steady flow of players, he lined the place with microphones and took nearly 40,000 photographs between 1957 and 1965, essentially turning the loft into an audiovisual study of post-war underground music making.

“I think it is the largest collection of recorded material this major anywhere in the country,” said Robin Kelley, a professor of American studies and ethnicity at University of Southern California. “It’s a lifetime’s worth of work.”

The building became a jazz nerve center. Overton invited over musicians like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bill Evans and Paul Bley, who led late-night jam sessions. Smith hovered in the background, snapping photos and letting the tape roll.

“The guy would hug you twice, take your picture and leave you alone,” Bley said in an interview. “The taping was a covert operation.”

Smith’s 1,740 reels of tape went unheard for many years. Following his death in 1978, they were brought to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Sam Stephenson, a research associate at Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, stumbled upon the tapes in 1998 while researching a book on Smith.

“In the photography world, the official view of Smith at this point was that he had lost his mind,” he said. “So nobody thought there was anything worthwhile on these tapes.”

After securing grants to preserve the reels and transfer their contents to CD, Stephenson began to sift through the audio gold mine. The Jazz Loft Project was born.

Listening to the tapes is like taking a sonic tour through mid-century jazz and the lives of those who played it. You hear Monk and Overton readying the tentet for Town Hall. You hear Zoot Sims egging on his compatriots to blow through one more tune. But you also hear brilliant passages from unknowns like Eddie Listengart, whose burning saxophone solos would have garnered wide recognition were it not for his severe schizophrenia.

Drummer Ronnie Free is another such forgotten son of the loft scene.

“It was such a fantasy world in some respects,” he said. “You’d be popping pills, smoking pot and drinking booze, and you never knew who was going to show up.” Free lived in the building and served as its de facto house drummer, only to disappear into relative obscurity after battling drug addiction.

Stephenson and colleague Dan Partridge, who have listened to and cataloged more than 1,500 hours of tape so far, light up when talking about Free and the other underground musicians who now have a documented place in jazz history. They’re also quick to point out the major historical revelations of the tapes—that Monk was much more involved in his Town Hall arrangements than previously believed or that Overton’s enormous influence on both jazz and classical music (acclaimed minimalist composer Steve Reich was among his students) has been understated among critics.

The researchers have interviewed more than 400 musicians, artists and others who passed through the building. In many cases, they play the tapes for their interviewees, who help discern their contents and recount battle stories—uncovering the layers of contextual tapestry that surround the music.

Much of that tapestry appears on the tapes. Smith recorded television footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. announcing his Selma, Ala., march and Walter Cronkite discussing Kennedy’s assassination. He also taped thousands of hours of conversations, late-night radio shows and even such banalities as cats meowing and drills buzzing.

As documentarians, Partridge and Stephenson take a particular interest in this non-jazz material, noting that jazz historians will have a chance to dissect and study the music once it’s available in a public archive. The project will also culminate in 2009-’10 with a book, traveling exhibition and WNYC radio series.

“The non-jazz stuff makes the jazz even more valuable,” Stephenson said. “When you release the jazz history angle from this story, the characters become not just jazz musicians, but really deep, complicated characters that could’ve been in a Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams play. It just so happens they play great music.”

Eureka! A Wired World Leads Ears to New Music Discoveries

Appeared in the February 2008 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

In the non-wired world of yore, the search for new music to suit personal tastes was largely a hit-or-miss endeavor. The stock at the local record shop, the whims of the disc jockey, the wisdom of friends and the sheer coincidence of random chance directed what people sought out and listened to.

The modern digital devotee, however, has a more finely tuned, custom-tailored process. Endless stockpiles of downloadable music, Internet radio stations that play only what you like, online friends who share your musical tastes and ways to try before you buy have streamlined the music discovery process. Traditional discovery methods haven’t gone away—radio and TV (and magazines, of course) continue to play tastemaking roles. However, by using online tools that emphasize community and compatibility, listeners are honing in on the music they like best and artists are finding fresh new audiences for their work.

“Discovering a new piece of music I like is one of the sublime things in life,” said Tim Westergren, founder and chief strategy officer of Pandora Media. Westergren’s love for discovery—and his desire to help musicians promote themselves—led him to create Internet radio platform Pandora, one of several online services that use a computer algorithm to recommend music.

Drawing on a detailed taxonomy of songs known as the Music Genome Project, Pandora creates streams of music it thinks you will like based on the musical qualities of artists or songs you indicate to the computer you’re fond of. Plug in Ben Webster, it streams Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas; plug in Miles Davis’ “So What,” it gives you Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.”

Pandora’s algorithmic approach to recommendation stands in contrast to software programs like, which produce streams of recommended music based on the tastes of others with similar listening habits. Drawing on data from a network of users to make recommendations—a process called collaborative filtering—hinges on the notion that if two people like Cassandra Wilson and one of the people also likes Wynton Marsalis, the other person might like Marsalis too, even if he isn’t all that musically similar to Wilson.

On, sometimes the discoveries come more directly from other users—you can browse your friends’ listening histories (a sort of musical voyeurism), send messages to other users, join fan groups and recommend songs. It offers word of mouth for the digital age, often among strangers who happen to share a common love for a specific artist.

Web sites devoted to jazz bring together fans from around the world who share an appreciation for the music. Bulletin board forums on web sites such as and Jazzcorner’s Speakeasy ( feature thousands of users trading ideas, arguments, recommendations and reviews on a wide range of topics.

Also, music tools allow friends who use social networks like MySpace and Facebook to expand their musical horizons. As these networks have embraced widgets—special applications that can live on existing web pages, such as MySpace profiles—more users are finding out about new music from friends online in territory traditionally associated with other types of socializing.

In May, a music discovery network called iLike created a Facebook application that allows users to post streaming clips of favorite songs, “dedicate” songs to friends and receive news about their
favorite artists, all within Facebook’s virtual walled garden. The service now has more than 15 million users.

“Part of our premise is to bring music to places that don’t already have music,” said Ali Partovi, founder and CEO of iLike, who said iLike widgets will also appear on, and a host of other sites.

From some record labels’ perspectives, if Internet users like discussing music and socializing on web networks, why not provide a home—on the labels’ own web sites—for them to interact and discover new jazz? That’s what Blue Note Records and Verve Music Group had in mind when they recently redesigned their sites. “The major initiative is to get the site beyond a destination for visitors to get information about just our artists or our upcoming releases,” said Matt Fitz-Henry, who heads up digital and strategic marketing at Verve. “It’s more of a destination, a community, rather than just a product presentation.”

On, users can create personalized pages and blogs, post images and playlists, and even send instant messages to other site members who are online. Plus, Verve will provide incentives for the visitors to become members of the site’s community, such as members-only Verve Vault titles as digital downloads. offers similar features and also includes full-song streaming previews. The name of the game is engagement. By letting users interact with and guide each other, labels are beginning to facilitate the discussion and discovery process, all in a jazz-focused environment.

“Maybe the level of participation is writing a review of a record that they liked,” said Jeff Zakim, senior director of e-commerce and Internet marketing at Blue Note. “Or maybe they want to build their own radio station of their favorite music, which is bebop, and then share it back with the audience. Maybe it’s someone who’s a jazz expert who wants to write a review, post blogs and comment. We want that person to feel comfortable and do those things as well.”

Of course, the sites also allow record labels to better manage and nurture relationships with fans. But what about artists on smaller labels—once listeners have discovered their music on discovery services like, how can they easily reach out to their fans?

Since 2003, MySpace profiles have enabled bands to become online “friends” with fans, allowing them to send messages with news and other information. iLike has come up with another novel idea: the news feed. After users tell iLike who they like—which they can do directly or by downloading an application that analyzes listening habits on their computers—the service dishes them a customized feed of event listings, news and other information from those artists. If you listen to a lot of Hancock on your computer, for example, your feed might contain a video of the pianist in his practice room.

Though it’s up to the artists to post the information onto iLike’s syndicated channel, it gives them a new way to connect with fans without requiring them to actively seek out relationships. “We’re essentially turning over the keys of the castle to the artists,” Partovi said.

The ultimate test is whether services like iLike can turn new discoveries into album sales. Initial data look good: More than 40 percent of Pandora’s 9 million users said they’ve bought more music since they started using the service. According to a survey released last January by the Digital Media Association, nearly seven in 10 users of online music services are enjoying new genres of music.

“I remember having a 75-year-old guy tell me ‘I never used to listen to new music—I like Benny Goodman, Fats Waller and all these folks,” said Pandora’s Westergren. “Now with Pandora he's finding and discovering new music, and he's enjoying it. This is a transformation for him.”

Adonis Rose: Texas Catalyst

Appeared in the November 2007 edition of DownBeat, an internationally circulated jazz magazine.

If you're not sure where Adonis Rose is from after listening to his drumming, you'll know it once he opens his mouth.

Rose speaks with a classic New Orleans accent, morphing words like "there" into "theyuh," and "orchestra" into "auchestra." In the same way he drops fat Big Easy bombs into his crisp, clean drumming, he speaks with a cadence that leaves little doubt about his New Orleans roots.

His accent might be why he sticks out in Fort Worth, Texas, where he moved after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent floods ravished his hometown. Here's another explanation: in a city known for its honky tonks, Rose is building a jazz institution.

Last year, Rose launched the Fort Worth Jazz Orchestra (FWJO). Having recruited some of Texas' top young players, he hopes the presence of the big band will help build up the city's fledgling jazz scene, which at one time included thriving territory bands and such luminaries as Dewey Redman and Ornette Coleman. Jazz musicians have migrated away from the city or opted for higher-paying church gigs over the years. In 2001, the city's flagship club, Caravan of Dreams, closed, leaving jazz audiences deprived.

"There's a good corps of jazz fans in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and I'm trying to reach out to those people," Rose said.

The drummer came to Fort Worth from his home in New Orleans a few days before Katrina hit. He didn't think he'd stay long.

"I thought Fort Worth was just a place where you have a bunch of cowboys and people riding horses down the street," Rose said. Upon arriving, he was surprised with the city's cultural offerings, and when he found his New Orleans house destroyed by the storm, he decided to make the move permanent.

The jazz scene was a far cry from what the 32-year-old drummer had grown used to in New Orleans, but he saw potential. "The vibe down there was happening," Rose said. "There were people playing music, just not any jazz. I saw an opening."

Rose also saw an opportunity to break out of his sideman role, which had included stints with trumpeters Terence Blanchard and Nicholas Payton, as well as a tour with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in 1994 while on hiatus from Berklee College of Music in Boston. "The nature of the business is to look at other instrumentalists as bandleaders and not drummers," he said. "I'm trying to break that cycle."

Starting a big band in a new city is no easy task for any musician. Rather than go it alone, Rose registered the FWJO as a non-profit, opening the door for corporate and community support. He also established an educational outreach component. The band now has a monthly gig at the city's 2,056-seat Bass Performance Hall.

"I wanted to start an institution, something that could last 50 years," Rose said, adding that the non-profit model was something he picked up from Wynton Marsalis. "Wynton put all those things into focus, and talked to important people who musicians wouldn't normally think to talk to. Working with Wynton and Lincoln Center has helped me to be a leader."

Rose had performed and recorded as a leader before. He cut two records in the late '90s heading up Payton's working band, and earlier this year he released On The Verge (Criss Cross). In directing the projects, Rose developed a hands-off leadership style that facilitated the albums' sense of swinging spontaneity. The strategy bore fruit on the latest release, especially in the group's take on Jimmy Heath's "Gingerbread Boy," on which the rhythm section seems to change tempos at will.

Rose also recently released an album of New Orleans jazz with the N.O. Vaders, the official moniker for the group of New Orleans natives he gathered for the session. The disc, Untouchable, also serves as the debut release for his homespun House of Swing Records, which he sees as a vehicle for greater artistic and financial control over his work. He hopes to use the label to release an album with the FWJO in the near future.

By forging ahead with his label and big band in Fort Worth, Rose is straddling his past and future musical personae. Though he was by no means stagnant in New Orleans, Rose admits that the jolt of losing his home during Katrina motivated him to chart a new course.

"If there's anything in life that I've ever wanted to do, I'm doing it now," he said.

Rose insists that New Orleans will always be home, but he's excited about sprinkling some Crescent City seasoning on Fort Worth's music scene, not to mention gleaning what he can from his surroundings.

"I want to be part of the culture," he said. "Maybe even part of the cowboys. Roy Haynes wore a hat. And boots. We'll see if my wife likes it."