Adam Shatz


20 March 2019

The Noise of Life

In December, Okwui Enwezor wrote to me from Munich. He had leukemia. ‘What I miss most,’ he said, ‘is the noise of life humming out there. It’s much too quiet here.’ He died last Friday, aged 55. Since then it’s felt very quiet, both for those who knew him personally, and for the many people who admired his work as a curator and writer. Okwui had a deep, booming voice, and a purposeful one. When he spoke, you listened. It’s hard to imagine not hearing it.


28 January 2019

New Sounds

In an interview with a French journalist, Joseph Jarman compared the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the avant-garde jazz quintet to which he belonged, to ‘a cake made from five ingredients: remove one of the ingredients and the cake no longer exists.’ Jarman, who died earlier this month, at 81, after a long illness, was the ingredient that made the band one of the most aesthetically adventurous groups of its era: he put the 'art' in Art Ensemble.


19 October 2018

'Random Dances and (A)Tonalities'

The last set is over, and the club is almost empty. The bassist has already gone home, the drummer is walking out the door. That leaves the saxophonist and the pianist, but they decide they're not done yet. They have more ideas to exchange, more confidences to share. They begin to play again, only this time just for themselves. Do most saxophone and piano duets start out this way? Surely not, and yet the best of them could fool you, with their intimate, nocturnal ambience, their exploration of 'songs of love and regret', as the saxophonist Marion Brown and the pianist Mal Waldron called their 1986 album. On Random Dances and (A)Tonalities, the new album by the pianist Aruán Ortiz and the reedman Don Byron, the music is unapologetically cerebral, like the title.


4 October 2018

Not Jazz-with-Strings

Five years ago, the alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón was performing with his quartet at a club in Chicago when he was contacted by Julien Labro, a French accordionist based in Canada. Labro was in town making a record with Spektral, a Chicago-based string quartet that specialises in contemporary music. He had arranged a piece by Zenón, a racing tune called 'El Club de la Serpiente', for the session, and wanted to know if he would have any interest in recording it with them. Zenón went to the studio, and instantly clicked with the quartet. 'The guys from Spektral were really on top of the music, which made the session very fun and easy,' he told me. ('El Club de la Serpiente' appeared on Labro's 2014 album From This Point Forward.) When the Hyde Park Jazz Festival commissioned Zenón to write a work for local musicians, 'naturally I thought of Spektral.'


2 July 2018

American Carnage

I’m in Europe this summer, though not in exile. I have not been driven to find sanctuary, much less thrown into a cage awaiting deportation, or forcibly separated from my child. When I fly home to New York, I will not be told that my name has 'randomly' appeared on a list, and taken aside to answer questions about the country of my ancestors, or my religious and political convictions. But for the first time in my life I'm not certain that this privilege, which ought to be simply a right, will last. By a strange twist of historical fate, people like me, Jews whose families fled to the US from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, became insiders, 'white ethnics', but the racism, intolerance and sheer vindictiveness that Donald Trump has helped bring into the mainstream are volatile forces, in constant search of new targets. For Muslims, Latinos, immigrants and black people, this has been the Summer of Hatred. Now we can add journalists to the list. Trump, the inciter-in-chief, called them 'enemies of the American people'. Five were killed in Maryland last week; they are unlikely to be the last.


11 May 2018

The Drift towards War

Benjamin Netanyahu first met Donald Trump in 1986, when they were introduced by Ronald Lauder, the heir of the Estée Lauder cosmetics fortune and a Republican donor. They became friendly, but Netanyahu, who was Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, doubted that the real-estate entrepreneur would be very useful to his future political aspirations. He added Trump to his handwritten list of millionaires to whom he might turn for favours, but ‘he was in the lowest category,’ Anshel Pfeffer writes in his new biography of Netanyahu, ‘indicating that he was good for an occasional favour, but not much more.’[*] Like many people, Netanyahu underestimated his new friend.


5 December 2017

‘Blue Maqams’

Anouar Brahem first heard jazz when he was studying the oud at the National Conservatory in Tunis in the 1970s. He was astonished that a youthful music of humble origins had evolved in a matter of decades into an art of extraordinary sophistication, through successive waves of innovation; Arabic music struck him as ‘caught in some sort of conformist conservatism in comparison’. He wanted to meld the traditions of the oud with other influences, and to create a vernacular modernism, like the jazz musicians he admired.


8 November 2017

On Muhal Richard Abrams

In 1962, Richard Abrams, a 32-year-old pianist on the South Side of Chicago, formed a rehearsal group called the Experimental Band. Its purpose was not so much to perform as to provide a laboratory of artistic research and development for young black musicians and composers working in jazz, or what Abrams preferred to call ‘creative music’. Abrams had been electrified by the free jazz revolution launched a few years earlier by Ornette Coleman. As Abrams saw it, the liberation from chord-based improvisation that Coleman had brought about was only a first step. Creative musicians would have to invent new structures to replace the old ones; they would have to re-examine their relationship not only to music, but to sound. Freedom, Coleman's gift, was also a challenge, even a burden: as exhilarating as free jazz was, the hard work of building on its liberties had only begun.


15 August 2017

Trump set them free

In late July, HBO unveiled plans for a new show set in an alternative reality, in which the Confederate South, led by General Robert E. Lee, has successfully seceded from the Union. D.B. Weiss, one of the producers of Confederate, explained the thinking behind the series: ‘What would the world have looked like if Lee had sacked DC, if the South had won – that just always fascinated me.’ Last weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, Weiss got his answer, with the ‘Unite the Right’ demonstration against the planned removal of Lee’s statue in Emancipation Park (formerly known as Lee Park). This ‘pastoral scene of the gallant South’, as Billie Holiday might have described it, was open to anyone who hated black people and Jews (‘Jews will not replace us’ was one of the cries), from members of the Ku Klux Klan to neo-Nazis. Emboldened by having an ally in the highest office in the land, they came with Confederate flags, swastikas, medieval-looking wooden shields, torches and, of course, guns. They came to fight. One young woman in the counter-demonstration was murdered by a man who rammed his car into her, weaponising his vehicle just as jihadists have done in Nice and London. A helicopter surveilling the event crashed, killing the two officers inside. Dozens were injured. For the next two days, the world waited for Trump to denounce those responsible for the pogrom. The week before, he threatened North Korea with nuclear incineration (‘fire and fury’). Trump is so hollow a person, so impulsive a leader, that it’s easy to miss the great paradox of his presidency: that a cipher of a man has revealed the hidden depths, the ugly unmastered history, of the country he claims to lead.


11 July 2017

‘The Bureau’

Eric Rochant's TV series Le Bureau des légendes, known in English as The Bureau, is everything Homeland isn't: an understated, subtle and nuanced espionage drama. In the first season there are no explosions, the body count is negligible, and there's hardly any talk of patriotism. The hero, undercover agent Guillaume Debailly (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), has risen to the top of the Direction générale de la sécurité extérieure, by adhering to a rigorous, almost ascetic set of principles, but these principles are more artisanal than patriotic, and he eventually finds himself forced to abandon them. The focus is on the work, and most of that work takes place in the cramped offices, and in front of the computer screens, of the DGSE.