Memo to jazz musicians: take it up a notch or stop complaining about how little work there is. All forms of revenue-generating live music today work hard to entertain and engage audiences in a big way. Cab Calloway, Jimmie Lunceford [pictured], Louis Armstrong and other leading jazz stars of the '30s understood this.
Charisma isn't easy but it can be learned. You either want to be outgoing or you don't. It's a choice. Of course, not everyone is comfortable on stage, but those who are worked hard to overcome their shyness and unease, and found ways to make audiences fall in love with them. At the heart of charisma is passion, optimism and a warm smile. Tony Bennett is a great example. Nancy Wilson, too. Dionne Warwick—absolutely. And Jon Hendricks. I recently watched Jon enter a room where someone else was appearing and literally take over the entire event with his sunburst personality and jolly laugh. And he's about as hip as you can get.
Back in the mid-'50s, jazz became brooding and introverted art music with the advent of the LP and at-home listening. Cool was an image and attitude that sold records. Rock and soul came along and captured large live market share with flamboyance and sex-appeal. Jazz never made the leap. Arena rock in the '70s thrived on outrage. In the '80s, MTV did the job. By the '90s, stage theatrics took rock and rap to new levels. But today, the screaming, blasting volume and pyrotechnics have become rather predictable and old school. [Pictured: David Bowie in the early '70s]
Now, live music that packs large venues is taking on jaw-dropping visual elements, primarily to survive softening attendance figures. Consider this quote by pop star Katy Perry (who is about to start a 95-date world tour) in the current issue of Rolling Stone:
"Touring is no longer an ordinary thing where you play an instrument in jeans and a T-shirt. It has to have some pizazz these days. [My new] show has a Broadway feel to it. It's got a story line that's going to be very interesting, kind of loosely based on my life, but a cartoon version.'
Mind you, I'm not advocating that jazz artists start tap dancing or study Barnum & Bailey or Walt Disney. They can't and shouldn't. But I think we can all agree that the introspective, serious, dour thing is a dated bore. If you want to reach more people, especially younger listeners, start figuring out how to add a little jazz to your jazz. Start with a smile and warmth, and make a connection with the audience. You're on stage—use it. And please remember: For all intents and purposes, the cool of old is tired and done. Seriously.
Steel magnolia. I came across Jeremy Wakefield purely by chance last week. I happened to be listening to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, which made me wonder who today plays the steel guitar with zip and zest. I just love the sound of that instrument. Steel guitar is to Country as vibes is to jazz. The steel sound adds instant hipness and excitement to songs, giving everything an authentic Western Swing feel.
Curious, I went to iTunes and typed in "steel guitar." Up came an album called Steel Guitar Caviar. Strange title, I thought. Also, it was hard to tell from the cover whether Jeremy Wakefield was from the '60s or from the here and now. So I swung over to YouTube and typed in his name.
Turns out Wakefield is new and quite something. Plus he has that modest, Grand Ole Opry look, which only enhances his authenticity. As soon as I saw the following video, I went back to iTunes and downloaded the album (it's here, too). Great stuff. Here's Wakefield with Dave Stucky in 2007 (in Spain, no less) singing Everybody's Truckin'. See what you think...
And here he is performing Santo & Johnny's Sleepwalk...
Chris Potter was captured recently in performance and conversation in the Arizona desert by filmmaker Bret Primack.
CD discoveries of the week: Randy Brecker's Nostalgic Journey: Tykocin Jazz Suite, is something of a Euro trip for the trumpeter. Randy was one of the founding members of Blood, Sweat & Tears and co-founder with his late brother Michael of Dreams and The Brecker Brothers. He has recorded on 640 known jazz dates, won five Grammys and appeared on dozens of pop, rock and commercial sessions.
On this new album, he plays a suite by Wlodek Pawlik, the contemporary Polish jazz and classical pianist, composer and orchestrator. This orchestral album is a jazz-classical work of the highest order and was written by Pawlik specifically to showcase Randy's solo trumpet. Think Thad Jones-Mel Lewis meets Stravinsky. Randy's playing here is flawless and packs enormous energy and verve, soaring and swooping over the swelling score, eagle-like. Sample Let's All Go to Heaven for a taste of what makes Randy special. You can find this CD at iTunes or here.
I love Giacomo Gates, and let me tell you why. The vocalist has that 1950s "meet you in the Village for coffee and poetry" sound, an authentic, sensitive feel that is all but lost today. Despite shifts in how the male jazz singer is supposed to sound today (sticky croony with faux Songbook passion), Giacomo has managed to remain a bohemian romantic rooted in the honest, nuanced style of Eddie Jefferson and Mark Murphy. His most recent album, Luminosity, expresses this perfectly. Giacomo sounds like the smell of pipe smoke or beef stew. There's enormous feeling and heft in everything he sings. Best of all, he swings swiftly on uptempo numbers and digs deep on ballads. Sample Peace of Mind and The Blues Are Out of Town. Great work by pianist John diMartino. You can find Luminosity at iTunes or here.
Here's a clip of Giacomo for this album...
Oddball album cover of the week: In an attempt to appeal to a younger, Jetsonian audience in the early '60s, Don Elliott on the cover of this Design album touched on two themes at once. Here, Elliott is depicted riding a beat Vespa scooter with mellophone in hand, all while crossing the Milky Way. It also looks like he went straight from the gig to the launch pad, since he's dressed in tails.