Before moving to Nashville in 1995, my view of the city mirrored that held by friends from other places. Many still cling to the misguided, outdated notion nothing ever happens here besides country. But the town's musical profile is more diversified than even many locals realize. There are a host of extraordinary jazz musicians living here, an equally fervent blues/soul/R&B underground, and plenty of fans whose ears are open to sounds embargoed on commercial radio.
Jazz's improvisational ethic, the blues' passion and soul's search for salvation remain vital elements in the mix that comprises what we call American popular music. Unfortunately, there's often too much time wasted in these circles on esoteric issues. Whether you call it jazz or Great Black music matters far less than the fact its coverage and support is hardly robust. Likewise, whether the term "blues" gets applied to artists others might deem soul (J. Blackfoot was a prime example) means little when there are few places to see Blackfoot and others we lost this year like Howard Tate, Hubert Sumlin and Lee "Shot"Williams, and even fewer stations willing to play their recordings.
There will always be an audience for jazz, blues, etc. It won't be the trendy demographic advertisers seek, nor the big-money, influential constituency that bankrolls classical (the main reason jazz keeps disappearing from listener-supported public radio). But it will be one that appreciates tradition and artistry, yet understands the necessity for change and growth. That's true not only in Nashville, but across the country and around the world. Now the task remains convincing those in power to give fans the opportunity to see and hear something besides the flavors-of-the-week types who dominate today's pop-culture landscape.
Jazz & Blues Top 10
1. Nashville Jazz Workshop
Fresh off celebrating their 10-year anniversary in September of 2010, one of the country's most unique institutions provided another year of vital classes, exclusive services and frequently spectacular concerts. A multi-purpose entity that combines education and advocacy, the NJW's many highlights included reunion concerts from Marvin Stamm and Tamir Hendleman, a show spotlighting the talents of onetime Freedom Rider and musician Ernest "Rip" Patton, and a visit from show-tune royalty Alan & Marilyn Bergman. Co-founders pianist Lori Mechem and bassist Roger Spencer maintain an incredible schedule of teaching and playing, while supervising a faculty consisting of numerous topflight players and performers. They also lent their rhythm section talents to many memorable shows, among them a powerhouse set by MTSU professor Don Aliquo done in the classic "blowing session" tradition. The "Snap on 2 & 4" series, plus the Contemporary Jazz Masters lineup, were other recurring highlights. Late in the year NJW issued two more in their series of first-rate recordings, one devoted to jazz vocals, the other spotlighting tenor saxophonist Evan Cobb. Things aren't slowing down in 2012 either. An early big event marks the return of peerless vocalist Monica Ramey and ace pianist Beegie Adair to Birdland, the New York mecca that doesn't invite lightweights once, let alone twice.
2. Dennis Taylor's magic
Those who knew and loved both his music and personality are still reeling many months later over the sudden death late in 2010 of outstanding tenor saxophonist Dennis Taylor. But at least his dream project, the versatile and vital CD Steppin Up, was issued this year. A wondrous date that merged hard bop and bluesy ballads, energetic R&B and many other influences seamlessly incorporated into Taylor's style, the music was also a reminder jazz can be fun as well as impassioned, engaging and intense. His wife, songwriter and publicist Karen Leipziger, put it best when she said, "This is the album he always wanted to make." It will also be the first thing friends remember along with his constant smile and incredibly giving and caring nature.
3. Jon Tiven's flair
Approaching a decade as a Nashville resident, producer/songwriter/instrumentalist Jon Tiven has been behind the board for a host of great albums from numerous performers. After previously working with legendary guitarist Steve Cropper, the duo reunited on a special release. Dedicated: A Salute to the "5" Royales allowed Cropper to pay homage to an idol, visionary guitarist/songwriter/arranger/bandleader Lowman Pauling. It also spotlighted Tiven's and his producing/playing partner Sally's penchant for studio surprises and adjustments, as he utilized such guests as Lucinda Williams and Buddy Miller in settings far removed from their usual styles. Add other marvelous guests such as Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, Bettye LaVette, Steve Winwood, B.B. King, Shemekia Copeland and Delbert McClinton, and the results yielded arguably the soul LP of the year.
4. King/Guy's perseverance
B.B. King and Buddy Guy certainly could have called it quits decades ago, and been ensured of music immortality. Yet both not only continue, but remain tremendous performers at 86 and 75 respectively. Each can boast a recent Grammy-winning release, King with the 2009 retrospective One Kind Favor, and Guy with 2010's Living Proof, which also garnered the first Billboard Top 50 LP of his career. They joined forces for a concert tour that came to the Ryman, but more importantly they persevere as elder statesmen and relevant contributors. Sirius XM renamed its blues channel after King, and he still hosts a weekly program that airs Saturdays at 2 p.m. Guy made the talk-show circuit, and is among the first names cited by rock luminaries as an essential figure in their approach.
5. WMOT altered
Area jazz fans knew it was coming, but that didn't soften the blow when Middle Tennessee State University's rulers purged jazz from WMOT-89.5FM on weekdays. Those who believe in the half a loaf philosophy rightly cite the retention of "Jazz with Bob Parlocha" overnight, and the continued existence of vital shows like Austin Bealmer's Sunday must-hear "Jazz on The Side," as positives gleaned from a bad situation. It is also good jazz survives on those weekends when it doesn't get bumped by MTSU sports. But the shortsightedness of this decision, coupled with the equally brain-dead deeds done at WRVU, reflected a bottom line mentality that is equal parts chilling and dreadful.
6. Chick Corea turns 70
Nashville was one of the places that welcomed the wonderful pianist Chick Corea on the reunion tour as he neared (now passed) his 70th birthday. The Return To Forever IV tour, with Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Al Di Meola, was among many A-list shows at the Schermerhorn. He also was warm and hospitable during interviews, as were Di Meola and White.
7. Sonny Rollins in town
This is on the list so low only because it's already been cited elsewhere. At 81, Rollins still plays with ferocity, zest and imagination, his solos supplying the best possible definition of improvisation as the art of spontaneous creation. His Schermerhorn show also drew a fine crowd, something that was good to see. It was also my third and best (or at least longest) interview with Rollins, something that's always a thrill. Let's hope for the establishment of a mid-sized venue where contemporaries of Rollins could appear regularly in 2012.
8. Local recording scene honor roll
Music City will never be the hub for jazz recording it is for other genres, but that doesn't mean there weren't and aren't superb jazz releases coming from Nashville. Here's a few that made our 2011 honor roll:
Rahsaan Barber, Everyday Magic
Dara Tucker, Soul Said Yes
Don Aliquo, Sun & Shield
Evan Cobb, Falling Up
3rd Coast Vocals, 3CV
Chris West, Surprise Trilogy
Jeff Coffin, Jeff Coffin & The Mu'Tet Live!
9. Covering the smooth base
It may rile the purists, but the amalgam of vocals, instrumental covers of contemporary hits, and mellow tunes that comprise what's known as "Smooth Jazz" remains far more popular to the general public. Even such adventurous types as saxophonist Donald Harrison has made inroads in this area, and there's only one local station that regularly presents this music: Fisk University's WFSK-88.1FM. The station also has popular shows hosted by volunteers such as the Saturday-night special "Mellow Madness" with Jerry Clark, and specialty programs that cover Haitian, African and Latin sounds, blues, gospel, and some traditional jazz. In addition, WFSK's lineup includes weeknight and Sunday-morning talk programs that cover political and cultural issues and events. WFSK, a community-supported outlet, represents something unique in the Nashville market: a station with broad appeal, yet targeted programs aimed at an underserved market (the black community).
10. Latino fire
The Afro-Cuban All Stars returned to Vanderbilt, with Juan de Marcos Gonzalez bringing a tweaked sound and revamped lineup. While he understands and appreciates the attention given to the vintage sounds of Cuba (otherwise known as the "Buena Vista Social Club" syndrome), the current edition of the Afro-Cuban All Stars is more interested in the present and what they can suggest for the future, something he made clear to me during our extensive interview.
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