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    SECOND EDITION


    Bruce Ricker, a filmmaker steeped in the worlds of jazz and movies and popular culture died on May 13. His death from pneumonia was unexpected. He was a friend of mine.

    Bruce produced, directed or had his hand in numerous jazz films - "Straight No Chaser," Clint Eastwood's "Bird," biopics on Johnny Mercer, Tony Bennett and Dave Brubeck. His most revealing work, however, might have been his first, "The Last of The Blue Devils," a documentary chronicling the survivors of Kansas City's big band era, including Count Basie, Big Joe Turner and Jay McShann. His cinema verite style enabled all to reveal themselves, not least of whom was Bruce. His role of quiet catalyst proved essential to the movie and its humanity.

    Bruce was an idea person trained to observe. He was a lawyer without practice or even portfolio, yet he recognized the irony of being an outsider operating within the mainstream. He was a cultural subversive playing by the rules and getting things done. I loved that about him - his quick dispatch of pomposity, with a wry acceptance of the ridiculous. He often referenced his own place in the professional food chain, issuing self-deprecations borne from his decision to traffic in jazz. Respectable wages? Earning power? What's that...

    He was a one-of-a-kind guy - a nightfly Subterranean transversing roads both low and high, rubbing shoulders with accomplished cohorts. I'd see him in California, he'd be running with Eastwood; I go to his wedding, I'm sitting with Sandy Koufax. I could never figure it out. In person, Bruce was an odd contradiction of impulses, a dynamo moving in legato time. His speech was laced with bursts of thought, rapidly fired, like an automated tennis server gone wild. At the receiving end I'd need to assemble the narrative or duck and cover. It was tough keeping up with him; when we chatted I mostly shook my head.

    Eastwood, who had come to depend on Bruce's tenacity and single-mindedness, recounted a classic story: "He said he'd take a date out in New York City and he'd take her to hear two or three sets in a row of Thelonious Monk. And by the time it was over, she didn't want any part of him." Bruce had to be proud of that story.

    He loved a poem I wrote about Max Gordon and the Village Vanguard, and reminded me always that when it came time for the movie, the opening frames needed to feature the poem. We both grew to recognize how special the Vanguard was, how it seemed to embody a time and a place and a value system here yet long gone, at once past and present. Bruce was a New Yorker bowing before a New York institution, a basement temple with spiritual power transcending geography. He shared the understanding that this was a phenomenon representing something far greater than music, and how privileged we were to have it. Our connection was special to me.

    Sad stuff. What's left are his movies. They're here and they'll be listed in the standard filmography of works dedicated to jazz, the music, the musicians. What won't be cited, however, is that this quirky guy had as much on-going rhythmning as his beloved Monk, that he was an excellent companion, that he ventured unassumingly through worlds he was not born into, and he triumphed. He left suddenly, my friend Bruce. And I now feel the way we both felt 20 years ago when Max died - the music sounds different without him.

    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

    FIRST EDITION

     


    THE GATE - KURT ELLING - CONCORD

    Male jazz vocalists are a special breed of cat, determined to command the attention of record buyers, festival presenters or columnists examining the contours of jazz's most slippery category.

    You find swingsters who sell truckloads of discs and work big-ticket arenas reserved for pop icons (Tony Bennett, Michael Buble, Jamie Cullum); guys enjoying emeritus status in the halls of traditional jazz singers (Jon Hendricks, Freddie Cole, Mark Murphy); and stud muffins sure to assuage our concerns about the art's future (Sachel Vasandani, Jose James, Gregory Porter).

    Among the most influential, however, is a leading voice from the group of middle-agers whose mission includes affirmation of jazz's historical ethos and expansion of its repertoire. That avatar, Kurt Elling, now offers us The Gate, the ninth record of his illustrious career. Produced by soundscape artist Don Was, whose credits include projects for the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, and Brian Wilson, The Gate is a musical excursion through the melodic forms of King Crimson, Joe Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles, as well as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock.

    Elling has created a thoughtful tableau, long on the cool emotionalism characterizing his prior work, yet delivering on a newer promise - that is, the examination of songs owned by baby boomers yet now treated as respected standards-to-be, worthy of jazz interpretation. Was is a crucial collaborator here, surrounding Elling with a support sound both moody and mediative. Among the album's stand-outs are "Steppin Out" and "After Our Love Has Gone."

    ALONE AT THE VANGUARD - FRED HERSCH - SUNNYSIDE

    Fred Hersch has been making sensitive piano music while combatting the stages of various AIDS-related illnesses. He has endured long comas and temporary bouts of dementia, yet throughout he has brought a compelling focus and clarity to his play.

    In 2006 Hersch became the first artist in the 70-year history of the Village Vanguard to perform a week's worth of solo piano. Reportedly, Alone At The Vanguard is the twelfth and entire last set of a week-long engagement, and tellingly, it communicates a sense of development, with exacting detail and the gentle pull of urgency. Within it, we're afforded an unusually spare and intimate window into his artistry, characterized by a dignified air - poetic filagree over decorated melodies.

    Hersch is most comfortable combining originals and standards. He pays homage to peers (Bill Frisell in "Down Home"), and heros (Lee Konitz in "Lee's Dream"), while he ruminates through classic compositions from Thelonious Monk ("Work") and Eubie Blake ("Memories of You").

    The sum effect of this living room recital is restorative. There's great comfort here. Fred Hersch plays like he is home.

    BIRD SONGS - JOE LOVANO - BLUE NOTE

    The air of inevitability connected with this record has less to do with the play of Joe Lovano, arguably the preeminent saxophonist of his generation, than with the subject around whom the project is built. Charlie Parker - the "Bird" of Bird Songs - stands as a touchstone among modern jazz artists. His works serve as a model, inspiration and irrefutable evidence that jazz's continuing vitality rests on foundational vocabularies - in this case, one originally codified by Parker.

    Lovano is a near-perfect interpreter of Bird's music, presenting a design that celebrates the essence of Bird's melodic and rhythmic vivacity, yet honors his own group's creative invention; they conjure musical abstractions that Bird, no doubt, would have applauded. Bird Songs features group members who have worked together before - pianist James Weidman, drummers Otis Brown III and Francisco Mela, and this year's surprising Grammy Award-winner, Esperanza Spalding.

    The group reimagines bouncy classics like "Yardbird Suite," cast here as a slow dance of hymn-like solemnity, and "Moose The Mooch," an elongated groove cycle studded by gems of Bird's recognizable licks. All in, Lovano has distilled the greatness of Charlie Parker and crafted a canvas showcasing his own greatness as well.

    Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.

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