Tag Archives: jazz

Mark Stryker’s ‘Jazz From Detroit’


I unintentionally kicked off 2020 with a bang, at least in one respect. I read Mark Stryker’s excellent Jazz from Detroit last month, and it was one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in some time, sticking with me weeks after I finished it.

I had been looking forward to the book’s release for some time, though it took me longer than expected to get around to it. (Upon seeing him at a wonderful Prism Quartet recital in Ypsilanti in November 2018, I introduced myself to let him know I was looking forward to the book’s eventual release.) I’ve followed Stryker’s work for years and his Twitter timeline is a wonderful repository of historical and musical morsels. I’ve seen him around at various shows in southeast Michigan over the years (the trademark hat and mustache make him easy to identify).

Whether people are aware of it or not—and many are likely not—Detroit has played an integral role in the development of jazz. For those with even a modest jazz collection (…for those who even have a non-streaming collection anymore, that is…), look through the liner notes and you’re bound to see at least one name who is from or spent time in the Motor City. I mean, where would jazz as an art form be without the John Coltrane Quartet (with Detroiter Elvin Jones on drums) and Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet (with Detroiter Ron Carter on bass)? (Hell, Ron Carter alone is credited on over 2,000 albums.) That said, until Jazz from Detroit‘s release in July 2019, no one had tried to cover that history in a single volume.

A richly detailed and comprehensive look at both the musical heritage of the city and the lineages in which Detroit has played an integral part, Jazz from Detroit has much to offer to both the musician and layman. Coming in at nearly 300 pages—not including the informative appendices and voluminous index—it’s a taut text that covers a century of not just musical developments, but economic, industrial, demographic, political, and sociological ones too. Stryker reaches beyond purely musical considerations, digging deeply to examine the factors that helped make Detroit such a cultural powerhouse. Bassist and pedagogue Rodney Whitaker said it best, telling Stryker, “That’s what we do in Detroit. We make cars, and we make jazz musicians.” (p. 294)

Stryker spent decades doing his homework, much of that time as a critic for the Detroit Free Press. In addition to his digesting existing scholarship, many of the interviews with the musicians and sidemen discussed throughout the book, including several who are now deceased, were conducted by Stryker personally. His authority comes from being someone who is both a fan of the music and history as well as someone who is himself a part of it. (His anecdote about his first phone call with bassist Ralphe Armstrong had me laughing out loud.) Additionally, his genuine love of the city and its heritage come through with every passage. He’s not a dispassionate scholar who swoops in from parts unknown to examine a phenomenon, only to leave once he’s collected his data. Rather, he’s a champion of the city and its legacy, pulling it out from under the shadows of New York City and Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent, New Orleans, Kansas City, and Chicago. As the author writes:

“Many Midwestern and Rust Belt cities with large African American populations also experienced golden ages of jazz in the middle of the 20th century—Kansas City, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, and Cleveland among them—but their musical impact eventually faded. Meanwhile, Detroit continued punching above its weight class.”

(p. x)

This book deals with jazz specifically. Myriad other books, articles, and films have been devoted to Detroit’s Motown and rock offerings. Though there is some musical cross-pollinating where Motown is concerned, Stryker, to his credit and the book’s benefit, stays in the jazz lane.

The book is divided into six parts. “Setting the Stage” (~1900-1950) lays the initial groundwork for much of what follows, particularly regarding the automobile industry and its role in shaping Detroit’s public education system and black working and middle classes, as well as discussion of some early musical figures in and around the city. “The Golden Age, 1940-1960” gets into the real meat and potatoes, with over a dozen chapters, each covering a notable musical figure (e.g., Barry Harris, Yusef Lateef, Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter, Curtis Fuller, Sheila Jordan, and more). “The Jones Brothers” discusses that remarkable triumvirate Hank, Thad, and Elvin. “Taking Control” explores some of the more communal and entrepreneurial musical developments in Detroit, including the Detroit Artists Workshop, the Strata Corporation, the Creative Arts Collective, and more. “Marcus Belgrave and His Children” dives into the music and legacy of Marcus Belgrave, one of the city’s patron saints of jazz who mentored many of Detroit’s more well-known contemporary exponents (e.g., Kenny Garrett, Rodney Whitaker, Geri Allen, Regina Carter, James Carter, and more). Lastly, “Tradition and Transition” takes stock of the health of both the city and its music of the last couple decades through early ~2019. Each chapter includes recording recommendations for the relevant artist or group.

As someone who grew up in Michigan, it was great to see how some of the more “local” or regional names fit into the larger musical and cultural tapestry. For example, laying all my cards on the table, I knew Marcus Belgrave was a longstanding musical and pedagogical institution in Detroit, having seen him at various masterclasses and concerts in college and elsewhere (annually leading and sitting in with myriad groups at Detroit Jazz Festival, sitting in with Wynton when he visited Detroit, etc.), but save for the occasional mention in a liner note when I’m getting a new (for me) album, it wasn’t always clear to me just how he fit into the larger puzzle beyond the Midwest. (Admittedly, perhaps it was my own ignorance.) I now have a much clearer understanding, thanks to Stryker’s work.

Stylistically, much of the book is weighted toward The Tradition, but that’s to be expected. After all, many of the figures discussed are known for styles steeped in the blues, swing, and bop (be- and post-). Even the more avant-garde folks who appear throughout, including bassist Jaribu Shahid, drummer Tani Tabbal, and pianist Craig Taborn, had a foot in more mainstream styles at one time or another. My only real quibbles with the book are extremely minor and subjective. For one, I was surprised to see Massive Attack labeled a rap group. (That said, as a fan, I was as surprised as anyone to see the group mentioned at all, and, admittedly, trip hop isn’t too widely known of a label.) Additionally, and it’s just because the album is a desert island disc for me, I would have included Chasin’ the Gypsy as a recommended James Carter album instead of either Heaven on Earth or Present Tense. But that’s me.

Selfishly, as a point of saxophonistic privilege, I must highlight one of my favorite passages. I was pleasantly surprised to learn of Joe Henderson’s training and that he studied with Larry Teal. More than that, though, I was floored to read of the following convergence of greatness. Talk about a pantheon of jazz and classical saxophone: “[Larry Teal’s] Tuesday morning lineup of students in 1956-57 was Yusef Late at 9:30, Henderson at 10:00, and Donald Sinta at 10:30.” (p. 132) A real murderers’ row!

If you’re at all into jazz, history, or Detroit culture, I highly recommend Jazz from Detroit. Mark Stryker knocked this one out of the park. I only hope there’s a sequel of sorts in the future.

Recommended Reading:
Perhaps to whet your appetite if you’re still wondering whether or not you should read Jazz from Detroit, I highly recommend these excellent interviews of Stryker conducted by Ethan Iverson for Do The M@th: here and here.

Beyond the Horn

(NOTE: I’m aware that some sweeping generalizations are made here. I intend to deeply sift through this further down the road.)

I play many different styles of music. Regular readers may already know this but, for example, in the last six months I’ve gigged in the following styles: Americana, folk/singer-songwriter, cocktail/wallpaper jazz, “jam band” (for lack of better term – improvisatory rock), sound/ambient, musical theater (Annie), rock. And I’m already in the process of lining up further disparate gigs over the next few months. I’m well aware that I’m not unique for doing so. A number of my colleagues and peers do the same, and there are many musicians in general that do so. However, one supposedly “limiting” factor is that I’m doing all of these gigs on saxophone (tenor, soprano, alto; plus the occasional flute and/or clarinet).

The jazz-, musical theater-, and classical-oriented stuff is no big thing in the sense that there’s already a place for me. In the latter two cases, the music is precisely notated in such a way that there should be no deviation from one performance to the next. In jazz, the history and vocabulary provides a natural context for the horn regardless of who I’m playing with. However, many of the other styles – notably rock, indie, and others of such ilk – aren’t common settings for my instrument. And in those cases where sax is often used, especially in older rhythm and blues and rock and roll styles, it’s performed in such a specific manner that eschewing such conventions – growling, squealing, blues-ing – can be jarring. It’s not that I dislike such affectations – quite the opposite – but over time they created a box that largely remains today.

Over the last four decades, the saxophone has been a sort of cameo rock instrument. (Before then it was often a staple.) When present it is noticeable. It usually seems to be the case that it’s “band + saxophone” as opposed to a band that happens to have a saxophone as a mainstay. There are of course exceptions to this rule – my beloved Dave Matthews Band springs to mind. In the case of DMB, the sax originally substituted the position of lead guitar (trading such responsibilities with violin). Also with DMB, the music has enough jazz-, jam-, or crossover influence to comfortably allow a variety of instruments to fit in. Another band known for marathon concerts, Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, of course features sax (the late Clarence Clemons, now his nephew Jake Clemons and Eddie Manion). However, even with The E Street Band, the heavy guitar presence sort of places the sax within the aforementioned box. (Disclaimer: I’m not intimately familiar with Springsteen’s deep cuts, but these are my impressions having explored his catalogue as much as I have.) Just picking one song off the top of my head, “Rosalita” definitely follows in the “rock sax” tradition. Even Pink Floyd‘s use of the saxophone stayed mainly within this vain – e.g., “Money,” “Us and Them,” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond Pt. 1” (the latter being perhaps my favorite PF song). There’s even a hint of it in Ron Holloway’s playing with The Warren Haynes Band (last week’s MTH-V). Or you could just listen to some George Thorogood. Or Bob Seger. Or…you get the picture…

It’s worth reiterating that I have nothing against the above sax examples or style at large. For the most part, I quite like all of them. But they passively reinforce the stereotypical “rock sax” sound – a near-anachronistic rhythm and blues punch in the face of the 70s, 80s, 90s, or 2000s listener. It’s as if the saxophone stayed in the fifties and sixties while rock continued to evolve alongside it over the next four decades.

Whenever I play with a rock band – sitting in or regularly – I’m compared, consciously or otherwise, to this tradition. (And I mean a real rock/pop band, not just a funk/fusion band that features an electric guitar.) Though I always appreciate it, I can’t help but laugh a little each time I’m told something to the effect of, “I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the saxophone” or “that was really good [or different, in a positive way]!” Because I know that that comparison took place at some point in the performance, even if only for a few milliseconds. And why shouldn’t it? That old R&B – the real R&B: rhythm and blues – sound is deeply embedded in that aural combination of “band + saxophone.”

By no means do I think I’m going where no saxophonist has gone before by avoiding this hangup. To cite a current example, one of the many things I love about Bon Iver‘s sophomore album is Colin Stetson‘s saxophonic contributions. (“MTH-V” on Bon Iver is here.) He plays throughout the material but is rarely at the sonic forefront – his presence is felt as well as heard. And his choice to mostly play the bass saxophone (with some alto and clarinet thrown in for good measure) is definitely unique in a rock setting. He is effective because he adds another noticeable, functional layer without sonically drawing attention to himself. If you were to just sit down and listen to Bon Iver straight through, you wouldn’t necessarily consider it “band + saxophone” (or “band + French horn,” etc.), but rather just a band.

(There are of course other modern/recent examples – Morphine springs to mind.)

When I’m playing with a band – rock, folk, jazz, or anything remotely along those lines – I don’t necessarily think of myself as the saxophonist per se. Instead I’m just another musician in either a lead or supporting role. Or both. Idealistic? Perhaps. But it has an effect on my thinking and consequently my playing. This of course is part of trying to find one’s “authentic voice,” to quote George Carlin. A primary goal for any musician or artist of any kind is to hone one’s craft to the point of developing an original voice/POV. This shouldn’t exist in a vacuum – ideally I should sound like me regardless of style. As I’ve said many times before, I grew up on rock and pop music. The sound is buried in my DNA. If anything I just see myself as another guitarist without getting hung up on the instrument hanging from my neck.

In Teag & PK, for instance, I have a lot of room to explore. There are just two of us – Matt (guitars, vocals, effects, electronics) and myself (saxes, flute) – and we cover a lot of stylistic ground from experimental ambience to straight-ahead songs. (More on that here and here.) The ambient improvisations are “easier” than the songs in the sense that the sonic landscape is wide open and there’s mostly no form. The more indie-esque songs are challenging at first because it’s often tricky to figure out where and how to implement a monodic instrument without getting in the way of Matt’s chords and voice. We can’t always have countermelodies – that’d get old fast. And I don’t want to just stand there as the de facto soloist in the final act of every song. So instead I find other ways to fit and truly collaborate: subtone a bass line, offer responsorial phrases, play an occasional counter-melody, regularly switch instrumental for timbral effect, etc. In a number of songs I’m able to fill out our sound without distracting from Matt’s singing; it’s truly a duo instead of an alternating singer and soloist.

Regarding straight-ahead rock, I’ve recently been sitting in with The Fencemen. (They’re rock with a capital R-A-W-K.) It started as a one-off recording contribution but I’ve since sat in on a couple live shows. As a bit of an experiment on their part (I’m guessing), they gave me carte blanche on the last gig’s entire set. I did my homework – happily so; their upcoming debut album is great – and did what I thought was best for each song. The band’s instrumentation of vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and keys is already sufficiently full, so above all else I intended to stay out of the band’s way. I gave myself some legitimate “parts” that simply enhanced the texture in some areas, other times I soloed. And other times I simply acted as a second guitarist, complementing the primary guitar parts. At no time did I stress over where to put a saxophone. Instead I thought about where I, not my instrument, would fit. (And if the answer was nowhere I’d lay out.) I didn’t want to just add sound for the sake of adding sound. I wanted to do fit inside what was already there. And it seemed to work. (For the most part, at least.)

Understandably, the above two examples may not seem like much. But I can tell you that, from a horn player’s perspective, the impulse to play a lot of notes is enormous and difficult to temper initially. In classical and jazz ensembles the saxophone often has a busy, featured part. This creates a sort of default mentality of always needing to play similarly in all settings. And on top of wanting to let the fingers fly, a trap I’ve seen a number of people fall into is a stylistic misunderstanding. It’s not uncommon to see a horn player execute jazz licks within pop music. (I guess that whole “knowing your predecessors” thing only applies to jazz and classical styles?) I’m sure part of it may just be the natural defaulting to what he/she knows best. Beyond that, I’m convinced that part of the reasoning is also a mindset that focuses on a traditionally “jazz” or “classical” instrument juxtaposing with a pop style. This then reinforces the reverting to type that often occurs.

I’m not going to allow my choice of instrument limit my choice of style. It’s not that I have “guitar envy.” Obviously I love the saxophone or I wouldn’t have spent all these years devoted to it. In fact, in full disclosure, I’ve played in the aforementioned “rock sax” style a number of times – sometimes that really is the best option. But often it’s definitely not the only option. An instrument is just a means of expression, not an end. And despite all my rage I won’t be just another horn in a cage…

(Photo: Meat Loaf as Eddie in Rocky Horror Picture Show. Duh.)

New Listen: Dave Liebman’s ‘Ornette Plus’

Artist: The Dave Liebman Group
Album: Ornette Plus (2010)

As expected, Dave Liebman has continued to expand his mammoth catalogue in 2010.  A number of releases have dropped in the last few months, but this particular record – I still use the word even though this is an iTunes-only release! – has flown somewhat under the radar.  While I still need to catch up on a number of the other releases, I can assure you that this one simply isn’t an afterthought (when compared to its more publicized counterparts).

The Dave Liebman Group is:
Vic Juris – Guitar
Dave Liebman – Saxophone
Marko Marcinko – Drums
Tony Marino – Bass

Ornette Plus serves as a live b-side of sorts to DLG’s recently-released studio album Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (2010).  It features performances of three Coleman tunes – “Turnaround,” “Lonely Woman,” and “Cross Beeding” – as well as an adventurous 30-minute interpretation of Vic Juris’s “Victim.”  DLG is, hands down, arguably the best live ensemble I’ve seen.  Musicality and virtuosity aside, they have an unparalleled telepathy and empathy that allow them to convey a dynamic, unified message.  (If you ever have the chance to see them, take advantage of it; you won’t regret it.)

“Turnaround” kicks off the album nicely.  While maintaining a number of the “free” aspects, it’s full of two things: groove and the blues.  Even though the pulse tends to fluctuate, there’s always a deep, dirty groove.  The melody here features a wonderful heterophony between Liebman (tenor) and Juris (guitar) – one of the group’s hallmarks.  Those two have a truly impressive ability to move together melodically without 1) requiring the dreaded unison and 2) stepping on each others’ toes.  Before reprising the final melody, there’s some great call-and-response between these two lead players.  Bluesy and gritty, this is a great opener; a nice way to “ease” the listener into the more exploratory performances.

If you’re looking for something similar to the original “Lonely Woman,” then listen elsewhere.  The ensemble displays its collective abilities here, creating an ambient, quasi-electronic soundscape that sends the listener to another world.  Liebman trades in the sax for a wooden flute, soaring over a pulse-less backdrop of harmonic texture, drones, cymbals, and tribal percussion.  It’s almost difficult to believe it’s the same group, let alone the same album; a nice contrast to the opener.

“Cross Beeding” is pure Ornette.  After a brief solo introduction on soprano saxophone, Lieb and Juris once again lead the group heterophonically in a more “traditional” frenetic and stilted Coleman manner.  Abruptly changing pace, Marino shines on the bass, soloing over a spooky, ambient backdrop similar to “Lonely Woman.”  Gradually the entire ensemble joins, and Marcinko drives the rhythmic activity, escalating until the whole group is drunkenly dancing about at the end.

The album “closes” (it’s the entire second half) with “Victim,” a Juris original.  Not only does the quartet explore collectively here, but each member also gets a chance to shine in the spotlight.  The Coleman compositions were bent more towards featuring the ensemble as a whole, not unlike a classical concerto for orchestra.  “Victim,” however, allows each soloist to speak freely, with only two brief, burning statements of the melody.  (A live performance was also released on 2008’s online release Further Conversations, but this one stretches much farther.)  Even though all of the tunes on this album aren’t from a single performance, this rendition of “Victim” ties the album together by both hinting at a number of styles explored earlier – free, ambient, and rhythmic – and via Lieb’s brief (un/intentional?) quoting of “Turnaround.”  (The latter’s quite impressive if from a separate performance.)  It also forges new paths, featuring more extended techniques, solo play, and fast, hard-driving swing.  Vintage DLG.

This was unintentionally a longer review than usual, but that’s because this album is worth it! It may not be the best place to start with Dave Liebman if you’ve not listened to him before – or much “progressive” jazz in general – but this should serve as a real treat to those familiar and/or those with adventurous taste.  Do give this hidden gem a listen (or five or ten!) – you’ll be glad you did!

*And for those interested in improvisatory performance styles of any kind, this album (along with any other by DLG) is one of the best masterclasses you could have.*

iTunes Link