[JPL] Jazz and Capitalism, or, "I Want to Get Jazzed!"

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Wed Oct 10 17:48:54 EDT 2007


Jazz and Capitalism, or, "I Want to Get Jazzed!"
Music Review
Fleurine at Dizzy¹s Club Coca-Cola
Andy Biskin at The Stone
Kristin Norderval at The Stone
³With the help of Coca-Cola, our club will embody [Dizzy Gillespie¹s] sense
of community and joie de vivre,² gushed Wynton Marsalis upon the opening
Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola in the Fall of 2003, Lincoln Center¹s latest move in
its effort to empty jazz of its working class roots and complete its
transformation into a form of cultural capital. The ³community² Marsalis
speaks of, whether he would have it or not, is not that democratic plurality
sometimes (but increasingly rarely) associated with jazz, but rather, those
residents and tourists able to afford the thirty dollar cover (not including
the ten dollar food and $10 dollar drink minimum per set) in order eat
molasses glazed salmon and sip a glass of sauvignon blanc while they gaze
out at a breathtaking panorama of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline.
And, oh yeah, listen to ³world class² jazz.

Fleurine performing at Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola.
While Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola certainly isn¹t the first venue to take
advantage of the desire of the wealthy to consume some high culture along
with their dinner (Birdland, The Iridium, and The Blue Note are all
restaurants masquerading as jazz clubs), Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola represents a
disturbing new honesty about the relationship of jazz and corporate
sponsorship. Yes, Coca Cola put up the ten million ³leadership grant² to
build it, but (at the risk of sounding totally naïve) did they have to
demand inclusion in the name of the club itself? Wouldn¹t a few plaques
spaced out within the club been more tasteful? While there are certainly
precedents for this in many other areas of entertainment (think sports
stadiums), to my knowledge this is the first jazz venue to be named after a
corporation, and it is more than likely that others will follow suit, or
otherwise risk losing the dollars of the wealthy residents and tourists who
want the best ³jazz experience² money can buy, and one that comes complete
with a slogan they can take home with them. (This was provided by the ³I
want to Get Jazzed² postcard handed to each customer). After all, there is
only one way to build a venue that could rival this one, and that is to woo
another corporate sponsor. As one Village Voice commentator put it,
³Somewhere up in heaven, John Birks Gillespie just hocked a loog in his

The effect that high-end jazz clubs are having on venerable jazz rooms like
The Village Vanguard is worth noting. The Vanguard, which opened in 1935,
does not serve salmon (or any food) and does not feature an
observation-booth-like panorama of Manhattan. It has, however, been forced
to increase its admission price (now $30) in order to stay in business.
Besides rising rents, this is so that the club can afford to pay the
musicians something comparable to what they might get at Birdland or Dizzy¹s
Club Coca Cola, and also, I suspect, to draw enough higher income clientele
to keep the room full. When jazz becomes synonymous with top dollar, it is
difficult to get someone who can afford a $60 experience to understand that
there is quality for $10.

Perhaps I would be less bothered by Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola, and by extension
the entire Lincoln Center jazz project, if Marsalis and his corporate
sponsors weren¹t so sanctimonious about their mission to reach out to the
public at large and nourish them with whitewashed versions of jazz history
in the form of educational lectures and ³kids concerts.² Marsalis and his
cronies Stanley Crouch and Ken Burns seem to actually believe the G rated
story of jazz as told, packaged, and sold to the privileged at Lincoln
Center. Are these advertising campaigns really aimed at luring inner city
blacks away from rap? Does Stanley Crouch, co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln
Center, really believe that a Wednesday afternoon field trip to Dizzy¹s Club
Coca Cola will precipitate a revolution in the consciousness of a
Jay-Z-spouting 12-year-old? If so, he is delusional; if not, I call his
bluff. Because despite the Lincoln Center line about how jazz is (and always
was) a music that brings people together, black and white, rich and poor,
young and old ‹ it has unmistakably become the music of the privileged few,
studied and learned by white kids in the academy, ignored by the vast
majority. Marsalis himself says it best: ³Jazz is America¹s classical

The ³experience² of Dizzy¹s Club Coca Cola begins not with a descent (down
your proverbial narrow crowded staircase) but rather with a trip through the
mall in the Time Warner building at Columbus Circle. If you can successfully
navigate the path between Gucci and The Gap, you are then entitled the
privilege of waiting in line for the special elevator reserved for the club,
and attended by security guards who stare at you as if they knew you only
had one credit card to your name. Needless to say, by the time I arrived
inside the club and took my seat, it was all I could do to keep my mind on
what I had come for, (the music).

The innovative Dutch vocalist Fleurine performed three sets at the club on
Sept. 10 as part of the Diet Coke Women in Jazz Festival, which runs through
Oct. 1. A relative newcomer on the jazz scene, Fleurine has become known for
writing original lyrics (Portuguese, Dutch, and English) to a variety of
songs from the jazz and bossa nova songbooks as well as compositions by
contemporary musicians who have inspired her. She was joined at the club by
her current ³Brazilian trio,² consisting of guitarist Freddy Bryant,
percussionist Gilad, and bassist Doug Weiss. Pianist Brad Mehldau and
saxophonist Chris Potter, two of the most exciting young players on the New
York jazz scene, were special guests. Fleurine¹s soft edged and dry tone,
and her understated swing, traits inherited from bossa pioneers like Astrud
Gilberto, were evident from the first song of the set, a mid tempo samba
that floated atop the clave stated by Weiss and the delicate percussive work
of Gilad.

Between songs, Fleurine would stop to tell a story and explain where her
inspiration came from for this or that set of lyrics, mentioning the names
of at least a dozen Brazilian composers during the course of the night. The
third song featured her English translation of lyrics by Chico Buarque, the
great Brazilian poet, guitarist, and singer, and Fluerine showed the utmost
respect for the integrity of Buarque¹s work by going so far as to apologize
to those Brazilians in the audience for her necessarily flawed English
translation, hoping they would excuse her on grounds that she wanted to
expose a new audience to the poetry of one of their cultural heroes.
Fluerine also performed a beautiful composition of Antonio Carlos Jobim¹s,
which she also translated, rendering the title ³Memories in Black and

The contributions of Mehldau and Potter added a richness and depth to the
performance, each steering clear of the clichés of the idiom, instead wryly
commenting on the bossa tradition while playing behind the vocals, then
exploring it while soloing. Mehldau¹s minimalist accompaniment echoed
Jobim¹s piano playing at times, yet he always seemed to come up with that
one absolutely distinctive phrase reminding us of who was sitting at the
piano, a master¹s assurance that his voice will come through no matter how
muted or subtle. Likewise with Potter, who occasionally treaded in and
around Stan Getz territory, blowing soft, buttery lines under Fleurine, yet
never ceasing to assert his own original conception.

The emotional highpoint of the performance was Fluerine¹s version of
Mehldau¹s ³Unrequited,² a dark, Liszt-like melody to which she set lyrics
and performed in duet with the composer. Mehldau, never one to sit back and
coast, opened the piece by setting up a rhythmic undercurrent slightly
different from any of his previously recorded versions, a sinewy, undulating
bit of counterpoint that morphs into the melody in the final bars of the
piece, letting Fleurine state the ³top² voice, and exploring his own
composition as if from the perspective of a distant observer, the pain
implied in the title now but the shadow of a memory.

But the quality of detachment, of ironic commentary, has always been central
in Mehldau¹s music. His is a music of seduction ‹ teased into listening
closely by the impeccable elegance of his musical sensibility and the power
of his technical prowess, the close listener enters a world of musical
pastiche that leaves one, to quote one of Mehldau¹s own wryly parodic
titles, ³Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.² Equally fluent in Brahms,
Monk, and Radiohead (to cite three predecessors almost randomly), Mehldau is
in a unique position to express the sense of ennui that accompanies the
cultural cannibalization endemic in contemporary America, where art is
reduced to a form of cultural capital, to be traded on the free market and
consumed like any other commodity. He can be as deeply introspective and
lyrical as Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett, and then by turns sound like a music
box or a player piano, with moments of intense lyricism always threatening
to morph into meaningless pattern, leaving us in perpetual unease about
whether or not we are allowed to identify with the music or whether we
should feel ³in on the joke.² It is as if his music says to us, ³mastery of
idiom alone isn¹t enough to guarantee transcendent experience anymore, but
neither can irony save us.² Perhaps it is fitting, then, that the pianist
whose work most embodies our supposed postmodern skepticism toward
originality, performs in the club most symptomatic of the commodification of
art that cultural theorist Frederic Jameson stressed in his famous essay
³Postmodernism and Consumer Society.²

The Stone

Kristin Norderval at The Stone.
After nine years of providing a venue for some of the most highly regarded
experimental music in (and out of) the city, the club Tonic closed its doors
last April. Located on Norfolk Street, the club was a casualty of the
extraordinary ³growth² in the Lower East Side during the last few years,
resulting in a spate of ³luxury condominiums,² boutique hotels, and glass
towers. As reported on the club¹s still running website, they were
repeatedly harassed by the city¹s Quality Of Life Task Force into closing
the sub-tonic lounge, which had brought in much-needed revenue in order to
keep the experimental music space open: ³Coincidentally, this campaign began
as our immediate neighbor The Blue Condominium Building ‹ a symbol of the
new Lower East Side ‹ prepared to open its doors.²

Consequently, the club, originally the brainchild of avant-garde guru John
Zorn, is without a permanent home. It¹s current, though probably
short-lived, location is a space called The Stone, a single, no-frills room
which can be found on the corner of First Street and Avenue C. Just like its
predecessor, The Stone features a unique booking policy: each month Zorn
chooses a musician to serve as curator, booking two shows a night (8pm and
10pm) and generally being in and around the scene. Vocalist Theo Blackman
served as curator during September, and his choices for Thursday, Sept.. 27
proved inspired.

The early show featured the clarinetist and composer Andy Biskin, who
brought along three friends, Ron Horton on trumpet, Todd Sickafoose on
acoustic bass, and Mark Ferber on drums. Amidst a relaxed, informal
environment (Biskin chatted with audience members before the performance),
the quartet explored seven of his compositions, ranging in feel from swing
to polka and in tonality from postbop and ³free² to neoclassical. The
overall group sound, which featured no electricity (amps, mics, etc), and
superb dynamics, combined with the intimacy of the room, gave the
performance a ³chamber jazz² quality. Biskin¹s sound on the small reed
instrument at times echoed the greats of the swing era but more often
reflected a deep study of later reed masters Ornette Coleman and Eric
Dolphy, whose bass clarinet work on Blue Note and Prestige albums of the
early sixties is legendary. But also, and perhaps because of his classical
training, there were things Biskin played during that set that I didn¹t know
could be executed on the clarinet, including a startling command of dynamics
in the extreme high end of the instrument¹s register.

The clarinetist¹s bandmates shared the spotlight. Horton¹s trumpet playing
was a potent blend of avant-garde innovator and Coleman sideman Don Cherry,
and contemporary star Dave Douglas, as he too drew from a range of jazz
idioms, demonstrating restraint and abandon as the mood dictated. Bassist
Sickafoose, playing in the liberating setting of a piano-less quartet,
seemed inspired by the harmonic and rhythmic nooks and crannies of the
compositions, occasionally suspending the rapidly shifting harmonic
structures with lightly propulsive ostinados, which served as springboards
for the others, including Ferber, who drew beautiful colors from his five
piece kit, which featured a distinctive-sounding Chinese symbol (a ride
cymbal with an inverted bell). The group¹s effort as a whole represented an
example of improvised music worth listening to ‹ with one foot in the past
and the other in the future.

If Biskin¹s group looked both ways, the second performer of the night,
Kristin Norderval, a classically trained soprano from Oslo, was engaged in a
distinctly forward-looking project, both in look and sound. Juxtaposed
against the conventional setup of Biskin¹s group, Norderval¹s trio had the
look of children of the future in a techno-crazed toy room. The leader
herself stood in front of her Macintosh Laptop, which in turn sat atop of a
Gallian-Kruger preamplifier and various sound processors, wires tangling and
sprouting from every electronic orifice. She was flanked by the
percussionist Gustavo Aguilar, who spread a blanket on the floor and sat
amongst dozens of miscellaneous rhythmic devices. (He is definitely from the
any-random-object-can-make-beautiful-sound school.) On Norderval¹s right
stood Monique Buzzarte, trombone in hand and half a dozen types of mute on a
table next to her.

The show began with Norderval, alone with laptop, less concerned with melody
than with pure sound, creating and then sampling by using the computer to
manipulate the sounds she had just made. Five minutes into the opening
piece, the room was echoing as Norderval multiplied, spliced, and
re-spliced. As it turned out, all of this was a backdrop for the poem she
wanted to get to, which served as a quiet culmination, focusing on ³kindness
and sorrow,² and read with soft candor amid the buzzing voices around her.
The second piece featured her interaction with her partners, Buzzarte
starting with a giant mute inside the trombone, creating muffled deep
groans, and Aguilar rubbing the inside of a bowl with some type of stick.
Norderval, again, was more interested in creating sounds than in being
lyrical, and the performance featured her approximating a bird whistle and a
high-pitched dog bark, sounds I had never heard a human make. (I told her
this after the performance and she seemed to be pleased). For sheer,
jaw-dropping strangeness, though, Norderval was matched every step of the
way by Aguilar, who actually may have used every toy on his blanket,
creating percussive effects with a battery-powered transformer with dancing
plastic balls in it, a squeaky grinder, little metal cars, stacks of blocks
(of varying material), and mini plastic clapping-hands. The final sounds of
the show were, fittingly, ³performed² by a small audiocassette recorder held
in Aguilar¹s hand. He had recorded various sections of the performance,
including the sounds coming from Norderval¹s laptop, and so the night ended
with a recording of a recording, perhaps a nod to John Cage.

As I left The Stone I mused about music and value judgments and came to the
following temporary conclusions. Is Kristin Nordervall¹s neo-classical
experimentalism more significant than Brad Mehldau¹s jazz innovations? No.
At the same time, though, could a player like Mehldau, or any of the other
contemporary jazz geniuses have developed with no place to experiment in
front of a sympathetic (and not necessarily loaded) audience? Probably not.
Perhaps ³uptown² is more dependant on ³downtown² than it would, or cares to,
admit. n
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