WBGO Blog
  • Why Mary Halvorson Sounds Like No Other Guitarist

    November 27, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Mary Halvorson's latest album, Away With You, is a collection of octets. (Image Credit: Peter Gannushkin/Courtesy of the artist)

    When you see Mary Halvorson on stage, she doesn't look like much of a trailblazer. She plays sitting down. She's small, and mostly hidden behind her hollow-body guitar and glasses. But then she starts to play. And the sounds coming out of her amp are anything but conventional.

    "I do like things that are unexpected," Halvorson says. "I often don't like music that's predictable, so you know what's coming next. I like to throw in things that maybe are a little less predictable."

    Over the past decade, the 36-year-old guitarist and composer has found increasing attention and acclaim, leading her own groups in the man's world of jazz and wielding her instrument so distinctively, one music journalist described her approach as "anti-guitar." She insists that is not intentional.

    "I'm not really thinking about being weird, if that makes sense?" she says. "I'm just trying to play some music I like. And it often comes out weird."

    Halvorson discovered the electric guitar when she was 11, growing up in Brookline, Massachusetts. But she went to college at Wesleyan University in Connecticut planning to be a biologist. Then she walked into a music class taught by Anthony Braxton, the MacArthur "genius" grant-winning composer and saxophonist.

    "And I was just so bowled over by him and his music that I ended up dropping all the science classes within the first semester," she says. "Within my first year, I thought, 'I can't not do this.'"

    Halvorson says Braxton encouraged her to find her own voice on the guitar. "He's so excited about everything, and encouraging people to explore," she says. "It made you feel like there were unlimited possibilities." (She still performs in Braxton's band.)

    After graduation, Halvorson moved to New York. At first, she worked in an office by day and played at night, but music has been her full-time job for nearly 10 years. And she works a lot, both as a leader and in bands led by other people — including the Young Philadelphians, with veteran guitarist Marc Ribot.

    "Mary kicks ass, you know? Let there be no doubt about it," Ribot says. "She can play atonally. She can play poly-tonally. She can find the melodies that are inherent in the piece, and develop them, and work with them, and play them upside down and backwards and inside out."

    Halvorson's latest album is a collection of octets called Away With You, with featured collaborators including pedal steel player Susan Alcorn, cellist Tomeka Reid and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. Halvorson says she sees more and more women on the bandstand all the time.

    "Which is amazing," she says. "I mean, it's not uncommon now for me to play in bands where women outnumber men. I think there's a real momentum, and things are starting to shift."

    But it's still not all that common to see a young woman leading a jazz band. Halvorson says her philosophy as a leader is to give musicians the freedom to make their own choice, in much the same way that she found her own voice on the guitar.

    "For me it's more a matter of just trusting my instincts, even if you have a really simple idea — just, 'OK, I like this, I'm gonna play' — and not worrying too much about what it is, what it sounds like, or doesn't sound like," she says. So I try as much as I can to play what I like, and trust what I like."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Kendra Shank and Frank Kimbrough Perform In-Studio

    June 17, 2016. Posted by Corey Goldberg.

    Singer Kendra Shank and pianist Frank Kimbrough join host Michael Bourne to talk about their long-running collaborative relatiosnhip and perform a few tunes - including renditions of songs by mentors Abbey Lincoln and Andrew Hill.

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  • A Remembrance For Chicago's Jazz Record Mart

    April 16, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Owner Bob Koester at the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago, which closed last month. (Image Credit: Sue Koester/Delmark Records)

    Chicago's Jazz Record Mart attracts visitors from all over the world. At least, it used to: Last month, owner Bob Koester sold the store, saying he was just too old to run it any more.

    Koester began selling used records when he was a teenager in Wichita, Kansas. After moving to Chicago, he opened his own store, as well as his own jazz and blues label, Delmark. But after more than 60 years in business, he decided this spring that it was time to pack it in.

    "One reason I'm selling is that my son, who will inherit the label, isn't too interested in the retail business," he says. "I'm 83 years old."

    Another reason, Koester says, is the rent — too steep for his current budget. On Jazz Record Mart's final Saturday, the store was jammed with loyal customers, among them local radio host Leslie Keros, teacher Shawn Salmon and pianist Robert Irving III.

    "It's been a few weeks since I've been here," Keros says, "but I used to work downtown and my lunch hour became lunch hours, because I came here to browse."

    Salmon says there are certain advantages to going to a brick-and-mortar store instead of shopping online.

    "I love going to stores, because usually online they just kind of show you what's happening, what's cool, what's selling. And it's always the same stuff," he says. "You can walk into a store and [say], 'I had no idea that existed,' or 'I've been looking for that forever.' I love it. I'd just spend hours and get lost."

    Iriving has fond memories of the store as well.

    "I can't remember the first time I was in here," he says, "but I think I even performed here once, many years ago. And it's just an institution. Considering what's happened with the record industry at large, the fact that a jazz record mart or shop has survived this long is pretty remarkable."

    Another regular customer was Bill Sagan, back when he was in college and business school in Chicago.

    "It was a store where people came in and relied on some very capable store employees that could route them to either what they wanted to buy and listen to, or what they should want to buy and listen to," Sagan says. "And if you ever run into someone that tries to convince you that making a purchase in any of the great record stores that we've all gone to in our lives is the same as the experience you have online, they would be kidding you. It is not the same and it will never be the same.

    That's saying something considering that today, Sagan runs the online store and subscription service Wolfgang's Vault. He bought the Jazz Record Mart's entire collection of jazz, blues, gospel, experimental, rock and world music — along with the name.

    Sagan is putting that inventory online, starting today, in a special section of the Vault, but it won't have those employees to guide you. A lot of them were nascent writers, like me — I worked at the Jazz Record Mart back in the day. Some of them were musicians, like trumpeter Josh Berman. He clerked at the Record Mart longer than he cares to remember, getting educated by listening to the store's stock.

    "I think I got a lot of my aesthetic from the Record Mart," he says, "because I started there so young. I didn't know anything. I mean, zero. I knew about Miles Davis. And I saw the future of what I wanted to do in the Record Mart."

    Not to glamorize the Jazz Record Mart — it was no Apple store. It was dusty and funky; the boss could be cranky and had his own way of doing things. Josh Berman says the hours were long and the wages low, but there were benefits.

    "I kind of, like, lived there, you know?" he says. "I was there all the time. There was a piano in the back, and I was practicing there every night. You know, you'd go on tour, you'd come back, the job would be there. They were very flexible, so there was a generosity that was kind of amazing."

    However, with the rise of online sales and low-cost streaming services, brick-and-mortar retail outlets must adapt to survive. The Jazz Record Mart did have a website, but the physical store was the thing. It was an experience — and not just for the customers. Bob Koester loved being there.

    "Jazz fans are really interesting people, good-to-know people, and usually very nice people," he says. "It was part of the business that I enjoyed — especially Saturdays, you know, you'd get these guys from out of town. And it might only be, 'Hi there. I'm from Belgium,' or something. It's just fun to meet them. That's something I'm gonna miss."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • If You Were A Jazz Tune Running For President, What Would You Sound Like?

    February 27, 2016. Posted by WBGO.

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    Marcus Roberts' Race for the White House is a set of jazz compositions inspired by presidential candidates Trump, Carson, Clinton and Sanders. (Image Credit: /Courtesy of the artist)

    Presidential campaigns may inspire people to vote, but they rarely inspire people to compose music. Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts takes up the challenge on a new EP called Race for the White House, which explores the personas of four different candidates from this year's election cycle.

    One of those candidates is Donald Trump; you can hear the song Roberts wrote to represent him below. It features a whistle, which he says is meant to express a particular vision of Trump.

    "That symbolizes Donald just looking over his vast estate and just chilling and just having a great time," Roberts says. "And then the trumpet interrupts him just to make a bold statement of, 'I'm going to make America great again, all by myself.'"

    Roberts says he was inspired by the unique personalities of the presidential hopefuls, and the challenges they face in communicating with potential voters.

    "It's almost like you have to get into other people's experiences so that they can see their experience in you, and vice-versa," he says. "And I think that's a very important component of what's going on right now in America. I think everybody wants to feel like they're being understood and related to, as opposed to preached to or told what they should think."

    Roberts lost his sight at age 5, so he's never actually seen these candidates. But, he says, you can learn a lot about politicians by listening to them — things you might miss just looking at them.

    "If a person is nervous, they might talk a little faster — or, if they're really in command, they may project more of a louder voice," he says. "If they're really happy, they might use a higher pitch. There's a lot of information there when you hear people talk."

    Roberts discussed translating those traits and tics into music with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Ben Sidran talks with Gary Walker on "Jazz, Jews, And African Americans"

    December 10, 2015. Posted by Josh Landes.

    Pianist, singer, scholar, and writer Ben Sidran discusses his exploration of the relationships between Jews and African Americans with WBGO's Gary Walker. From music to food and lyrics to locations, Sidran examines the ties that bound two distinct cultures during the early development of jazz.

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