In Part 1 last week Ron covered Pittsburgh saxophonist Fred Staton, still performing at age 102, and interviewed Chicago music critic and DJ James Porter. If you missed that column you can read it here. This week he interviews educator Ryan Middagh and reviews classic and recent CDs.

Side 3 – Interview with Dr. Ryan Middagh

Dr. Ryan Middagh has become both a vital member of the academic community and also a contributor to Music City’s working jazz world. He inherited a very tough role, coming in to head the Jazz Studies department at the Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, after the loss of the beloved and greatly admired Billy Adair. He’s steadily working to develop the next generation of jazz players, while also squeezing in time for some personal contributions on area bandstands. He recently took time to answer some of our questions via e-mail.(1) What led you to Vanderbilt and how has the experience been thus far?
The opportunity to work at Vanderbilt has been incredible. I was brought here by a series of events that began with the passing of the great, and widely admired Billy Adair. When the job became available, I initially did not apply as I was still completing my doctoral coursework, but at the encouragement of Nashville pianist Bruce Dudley, I applied for the job, interviewed, and was offered the position. The experience at first was challenging; there was a lot of work to be done, students and faculty were still mourning the loss of Billy Adair.  However, working together with supportive faculty, great student leadership, and lots of dedication, we have been able to develop the jazz area at Vanderbilt into one of the finest programs in the country.(2)  The profile of jazz in academia has greatly expanded over the decades. What do you see as the benefits of learning jazz on campus vs. the traditional route of developing your skills through extensive sessions and gigs?
I believe the academic and professional development of student-musicians need to work hand-in-hand.  Though students will gain in-depth knowledge and understanding of a subject through structured curriculum, there is no academic replacement for going to jam sessions, meeting new musicians, and playing in unfamiliar environments. I encourage students to go to as many jam sessions as they can, and “be in the room” with the music as often as possible.(3) What got you interested in jazz, and has that always been your first love?
The very first jazz record I ever owned was John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman when I was nine or 10, and I think from that point forward jazz was my main passion when it came to music.  Around that same time, I remember hearing the Tower of Power record Back to Oakland and that was really informative of me wanting to play baritone saxophone.  Before that, I remember my dad listening to a lot of 1950s rock n’ roll that featured really boisterous and short saxophone solos that I enjoyed, and still enjoy today.  I love exploring all kinds of music, but jazz is definitely at the center of what I enjoy and dedicate my practicing to.

(4) Who were some early inspirations or influences?
Dexter Gordon was the first big influence with his big sound, his swing, interpretations of ballads, and humor in his playing.  After Dexter, Cannonball Adderley is a saxophonist I look to for inspiration and influence as I feel he balances melodicism, blues, and bebop in the most satisfying of ways. I spent a lot of my time in college transcribing and following the baritone saxophone lineage of Pepper Adams for many of the same reasons that I enjoy Dexter Gordon and Cannonball Adderley.

(5) Do you have a preferred style or period of jazz?
What I love most about jazz is the broad spectrum that a musician can pull from to create jazz music, so to say I have a preferred style or period is difficult. I do have a great affinity for big band or large jazz ensembles of any time period, due to its orchestrational and creative possibilities.

(6) How difficult is it from an academic perspective to teach composition? Is this something that naturally develops as someone improves as a player, or is it a totally different thing?
I really enjoy teaching composition. In my musical development, my sensibility as a composer and arranger matured more quickly than my sensibility as a jazz improviser. I view them as separate concepts, but feel they can inform each other.  At Vanderbilt, I teach private instruction in jazz composition and arranging; unlike other institutions, we do not offer lecture courses in the subject, everything is taught one-on-one.  This really allows me as an instructor to meet the student where they are in the subject, explore their interests and develop the best path for the student to learn and grow.

(7) I know you do some outside gigs, but how difficult is it to juggle your Vanderbilt duties with being a working jazz musician?
Balancing the needs of the jazz program at Vanderbilt with performing and writing outside of the school has been the biggest challenge since taking the position. I have become more and more selective about the work I have taken outside of the school, focusing more on my creative work and exploring the opportunities of playing with new people. Learning to say “no” is something I have to work on everyday, as it does not come naturally.

(8) How do you assess the Nashville area in terms of jazz?
I first moved to Nashville in 2007, left in 2011, and returned to take my position at Vanderbilt in 2014.  Within that timeframe, Nashville has changed a lot, and so has the music scene. The closing of F. Scott’s was a huge loss, but I feel a lot of venues across the city have opened their doors to live jazz music. Venues that are not dedicated jazz listening rooms offer a lot of live jazz, such as City Winery, the Family Wash, Union Common, and the list goes on. Roger Spencer and Lori Mechem do incredible work over at the Nashville Jazz Workshop, and I am extremely optimistic about Nashville’s new dedicated jazz venue, Rudy’s Jazz Room. In addition to all these wonderful venues, I see a new generation of jazz musicians taking over the scene playing and writing really creative music, such as David Williford, Michael Toman, and my former student David Rodgers. The Nashville jazz scene is alive and well, and it is only going to get better.

(9) Do you consider the Vanderbilt administration very supportive of your efforts?
The administration at Vanderbilt has been extremely supportive in developing the jazz area. This includes some significant new hires, including grammy-award winning saxophonist Jeff Coffin, vocalist Christina Watson, and trombonist Roland Barber. We are now in the second year of hosting the Nashville Jazz Workshop’s Summer Jazz Camp and we also have a new artist-in-residence, the Nashville Jazz Composers Collective, which advocates for new and creative jazz music. The administration also supplied additional funding when the Blair Big Band (our student large jazz ensemble) was invited to perform at this year’s Jazz Education Network Conference in New Orleans. There is still much work to be done, but I feel confident that the administration, faculty, and students are in full support of seeing the jazz program succeeding to its full potential.

(10) What are some of the recurring tendencies or bad habits do you see in your students?
In general, I feel students do not listen to enough music, especially jazz. The students I work with have all the world’s music at their fingertips, so sometimes I feel they may not listen as deeply or attentively to one track or one album. In relation to listening, most students will not listen to an entire album. When we start our semester, I tend to ask students “What are your favorite jazz albums?” “What are your favorite non-jazz albums?” and they usually end up giving me song titles. Any student of music (including myself) can always benefit from more listening.

(11) Are there particular instructional books that you recommend for horn players?
In my mind, there are two books that every saxophonist needs to own and work out of every time they practice: Donald Sinta’s Voicing, which helps develop tone, and the Charlie Parker Omnibook, for development of jazz language.

(12) Do you have any interaction with area high school or middle schools in terms of identifying potential future Vanderbilt students?
I thoroughly enjoy working with high school and middle school students and music educators. As there is currently not a jazz major at Vanderbilt University, I play a very small role in the recruiting and admission processes. However, when I work with students in clinics, masterclasses, or at festivals, I hope they get a sense of what is offered for jazz at Vanderbilt University and realize that pursuing jazz is an option whether they choose to major in music or a different field.

(13) Did you grow up playing or listening to jazz?
I joined my first jazz ensemble in middle school, though I don’t know if you could say I was “playing jazz” at the time; I was definitely trying! With the friends I made in high school and middle school jazz band, we would spend our lunch breaks listening to a new album that one of us just discovered, and it really covered the gamut from Bob Florence to Boney James; Thad Jones to Tower of Power; Wes Montgomery to Weather Report.

(14) What are some future aspirations for either the Vanderbilt program or personally?
I want the Vanderbilt jazz program to be the best that it can be for the students, the music, the University, and the Nashville community. To me, this means training conscientious musicians, who are going to be ready to tackle the world’s challenges both musically and personally; remembering that we should put the music first, and be willing to openly share the gift of music; and making sure that we are representing our University and the city of Nashville to the best of our abilities. Personally, I want to challenge myself everyday to be a better musician and educator. In both the aspect of the Vanderbilt jazz program and my own musical development, I want to continue to set the bar higher.

15) Who are some current jazz musicians that you enjoy?
I really enjoy the creative work that Kamasi Washington is doing. From a composer’s standpoint, I’m very inspired by the work that Omar Thomas is doing, and hope to program more of his compositions for the Blair Big Band in the future.

(16) Who are some vintage jazz musicians you admire?
For the longest time, I have been enamored by the work of Gil Evans, and feel that he is greatly underappreciated for the impact that he has had on jazz music. I have great admiration for Wayne Shorter, his creativity as a composer and a saxophonist, and his ability to reinvent his music every night. I saw Wayne in 2014, and it was like watching a kid in a sandbox – everything was new, and you had a sense he could create anything he wanted.

(17) Do you incorporate influences from other idioms into your playing style?
I feel my playing incorporates elements of Latin Jazz, funk, soul, and blues. I am starting to hear other musical elements from a compositional standpoint that I hope to start incoporating in my playing including crossing into folk elements and more contemporary jazz trends. On my last record, I tried writing and playing a “jazz-grunge” tune, but I don’t know if I’ll be trying that again.

(18) Do you also do private instruction outside the Vanderbilt campus?
I do not. I do, however, give clinics and masterclasses to students and ensembles of all ages, give special lectures to music educators, and mentor young composers (college/professional) through our jazz professional organization, the Jazz Education Network.

(19) If you have or had a son or daughter, would you encourage or discourage them from playing professionally?
If I did I would definitely encourage them to play music to their fullest desire. Pursuing music professionally has given me the greatest opportunities of my lifetime, and I would encourage any young person with drive and work ethic to pursue their passion.

(20) What are some other things you enjoy aside from music?
My favorite things to do in my free time are to cook and try new restaurants in Nashville. Usually when the school year ends, I spend a lot of time trying new recipes, reading articles about cooking, watching new food shows, etc. In addition to exploring the “foodie” side of things, I spend a lot of time hiking around Percy Warner or Radnor Lake.


Side 4 – Spotlight Reviews

Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane
“Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings”
(Craft Recordings – Deluxe Vinyl Box Set)

Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane played together every single night for an incredibly fruitful but brief period at New York City’s Five Spot Café in 1957. During that time Monk’s amazing compositional flair had a great impact on Coltrane, who cites it among the most pivotal moments in his entire career. Yet there was also a learning curve and adjustment period, as Coltrane adapted to Monk’s distinctive writing style, which often included unexpected or unusual chord changes, harmonic twists and unconventional rhythmic passages. This new three-LP box set features all the music from the studio recordings Monk and Coltrane made between April and July. The songs have been remastered  from the original recordigs and pressed onto 180-gram vinyl. The resulting hi-resolution digital format provides stunning sound, accompanied by new artwork with some fabulous photos and extremely comprehensive liner notes that fully convey the sessions’ significance.

While every tune is masterful, set highlights include the various versions of “Crepuscule with Nellie,” “Off Minor,” “Monk’s Mood,” with a funny false start that opens the set on the song’s first take, and both a short and long version of “Ephistrophy.”  There are also very different versions of “Ruby, My Dear,” with Coleman Hawkins’ swing-infused style on one versus Coltrane’s approach on the second, and stellar playing all round on “Blues For Tomorrow” and “Nutty.” It’s also interesting to hear how the pace varies on the tunes with Art Blakey on drums vs. Shadow Wilson. Each was a premier player, yet their interaction with Monk is vastly different. Ray Copeland and Gigi Gryce are also featured on some other selections, though it’s the interaction between Coltrane and Monk, as well as the intensity of Coltrane throughout that makes this set so valuable. It’s actually worth purchasing a turntable if you don’t already own one to hear just how great this music sounds, and to reaffirm the brilliance and artistry of Monk as a composer and player.

Wes Montgomery/Wynton Kelly Trio
Smokin’ in Seattle:Live At the Penthouse 1966
(Resonance Records)

Wes Montgomery’s Riverside and Verve recordings are guitar treasures, the epitome of swinging, bluesy fervor and dazzling creativity. But it’s the late ’60s recordings for A&M that actually made Montgomery somewhat of a star late in his career, despite the fact these were mostly lightweight pop-oriented instrumentals with minimal solos and even less energy in his playing. So it’s often assumed that Montgomery had toned things down by the late ’60s, and was content to churn out versions of “Windy” and “A Day In The Life,” while pretty much abandoning the wide-open, fiery style that had characterized his finest albums.

But this reissue, among the latest in the spectacular lineup of Resonance Records gems culled from the vaults, refutes that notion. It features Montgomery as his finest, joined by the Wynton Kelly trio, who served as opening act for the sets prior to his arrival.  Kelly’s superb accompaniment and solos fortify rigorous playing on such cuts as “Jingles,” “Blues In F” and “West Coast Blues,” while Kelly’s trio takes honors with the set opener “There Is No Greater Love.” The ensemble also displays its musical versatility by exploring bossa nova via the Jobim composition “O Morro Nao Tem Vez,” then tackle both Blue Mitchell’s “Sir John,” and Sonny Rollins’ classic “Oleo.”  Ron McClure and Jimmy Cobb made an expert rhythm section, with McClure’s outstanding bass work nicely teaming with Cobb’s vigorous, steady rhythmic support for Kelly’s wily and spirited chording and solo forays. It’s a 10-track masterpiece, with Wes Montgomery repeatedly showing his mighty blend of soul and technical excellence during an exciting and memorable performance ably presented via this superb reissue.


Side 5 – Jazz Plus

Andy T Band
Double Strike
(American Showplace Music)The newest incarnation of Nashville blues bandleader/guitarist Andy Talamantez’s (Andy T) group features a dynamic new lead vocalist in Alabama Mike, a stirring, powerhouse singer with both blues and gospel connections. “Double Strike” is the ensemble’s first release with Alabama Mike, and it’s a super followup to the Andy T/Nick Nixon trilogy that included the wonderful “Numbers Man” from 2015, their last record. Though Nixon has now retired due to health concerns, he’s still featured on six tunes, most notably the rollicking “Deep Inside,” and the soothing ballad “Sweet Thing.” Alabama Mike (Michael A. Benjamin) soars and roars on the opening number “I Want You Bad,” and shows his ability to integrate his booming vocals into a big band number of “Sad Times.” They shift into New Orleans mode on “Where Did Our Love Go Wrong,” and overall the band is in excellent form no matter which singer is handling the leads.Aside from Andy T’s stinging guitar, there’s special guest and co-producer Anson Funderburgh on hand for additional guitar support, plus Larr van Loon on piano and Hammond B-3 organ, acoustic and electric bassist Johnny Bradley, and drummer Jim Klinger, while the three-member Texas Horns (tenor saxophonist Kaz Kazanof, baritone saxophonist John Mills, trumpeter Al Gomez) also add instrumental firepower and edge to several selections, and harmonica ace Greg Izor takes the spotlight behind Nixon on “Deep Inside.”  Whether it’s the new or old unit, the Andy T Band show on “Double Strike” that they’re still making impressive and delightful blues recordings.Rick Monroe
Gypsy Soul
(Available on ITunes/Amazon)

The question of what is or isn’t jazz, blues, or country can generate instant controversy when purists offer definitions regarding authenticity. Rather than venture into that territory let me just say singer/songwriter Rick Monroe’s latest EP Gypsy Soul should satisfy any country camp. Those who feel vocal inflection and storytelling expertise define the sound will clearly identify with his style, while those who put more emphasis on content and performance should enjoy hearing a gifted, engaging vocalist who clearly has worked multiple idiomatic influences into a sensibility with its foundation in traditional country, but also reflecting elements of soul and blues.

Although the title track is my personal favorite, there are others equally deserving of attention. The finale “Rage On” contains a potent message, while “Ease On Down” has a relaxed, yet powerful sound. However the tune that’s generated the most commercial response is “This Side of You,” a beautifully sung number with both sentimental and reflective themes. It may give “Gypsy Soul” the momentum to be a showcase recording which enables him to break through at a time when indie artists and labels have never had a tougher time getting airplay on commercial radio. Hopefully “This Side of You” and Gypsy Soul get that break.