Friday, January 23, 2015

The Teacher, the Student, The Music

Had the opportunity to watch "Keep On Keepin' On", the documentary created by filmmaker Alan Hicks about the relationship between nonagenarian Clark Terry and, at the opening of the film, 23-year old pianist Justin Kauflin.  Mr. Terry should need no introduction as he has been a part of the American music scene since the mid-1940s, playing his trumpet and flugelhorn with so many influential bands and small groups as well as appearing on over 900 albums, 114 as a leader or co-leader.  The Clark Terry we see in the movie is mostly bed-ridden (due to the crippling effects of diabetes) yet is still teaching, even after his legs are amputated.

But, don't think view this documentary as an obituary or even a tragedy. While Mr. Terry shown practicing early in the film, what you really see is how he remains a vital teacher and mentor for young musicians, in this case a young pianist from Virginia, Justin Kauflin.  The 2 men share a love, a passion, for music, for the uplifting intersection of rhythm and melody and the joy of well-executed turn-of-a-phrase. At the beginning of the film, the elder man is losing his sight; blindness has been a fact of Kauflin's life since he was a young boy.  It seems as if many of the lessons that Mr. Terry gives his student make place late at night, as if out of the darkness both musicians share, the light created by their discussions and the music continues to move them forward.  Hicks uses close-ups to make sure we understand the relationship is more than just teacher/student but that there is great love that develops over the course of the lessons.

No matter how you feel about creative music/jazz, you will understand how it informs the lives of Clark Terry and Justin Kauflin.  There is no talk about "commercial viability", about how hard it is in the 2010s to make a living; instead, you will see how "alive" this music is in the hands of people young and old.  "Keep On Keepin' On" comes to a close with Clark Terry lying in his bed yet still teaching, his body failing him but his spirit so alive that you cannot take your eyes off of him even as the camera pulls away.

There's much more to this movie, including a great overview of Mr. Terry's career as well as the challenges of Justin Kauflin starting his life as a professional musician. See this documentary and you'll never forget it.  For more information, go to

One of the pivotal scenes in the movie is when Justin Kauflin meets Quincy Jones.  Like the young pianist, the great producer/composer and arranger had been mentored by Clark Terry and they have been friends for over 6 decades.  Jones hears and sees what Mr. Terry hears and sees in Justin Kauflin, ultimately taking the young man on his world tour in 2013-14 and signing him to his QWest company.  Their collaboration, recorded in July of 2014 and titled "Dedication", has just been released on Jazz Village/ Harmonia Mundi.  The 12 tracks, all original compositions, include 8 with his Quartet of Billy Williams (drums), Christopher Smith (bass) and Matt Stevens (guitar, replaced by acoustic guitarist Etan Haziza on 1 track) - there are also 3 Trio tracks and 1 lovely solo piece, "Mother's Song", a piece stunning in its simplicity and emotional richness.  Williams and Haziza both appeared on Kauflin's 2010 self-produced debut CD, the guitarist again on only 1 track.

As you listen to the music, you will hear a strong rhythm section, an agile and creative pianist plus a fine second voice in guitarist Stevens. Several of the Quartet tracks, in particular the opening "Elusive" and "Epiphany", may remind the listener of the music Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays created in the late 1970s and early 80s.  Guitarist Stevens, who has worked with trumpeter Christian Scott and the Next Collective, has a clear tone and a melodic bent which bends well with the more forceful piano work of Kauflin.  There's a touch of funk on "B Dub", especially in the rolling piano chords; Smith and Williams push the music forward and the soloists pick up on their shifts in intensity. Kauflin's solos throughout the album, especially on the uptempo pieces, also display impressive forward motion, an excitement that is infectious for the listener. Hazes replaces Stevens on the closing track, "Thank You Lord", a gospel-tinged ballad that also has a "country" feel and a melody line just ripe for a vocal. Listen to the notes as they ring out in an articulate fashion on the piano solo.

The Trio tracks include the handsome ballad "For Clark", all the more poignant if you have seen the movie.   The impressive melody, the wide-ranging solo, and the soulful chords, all supported by an active and involved rhythm section really make this piece stand out. "Tempest" opens in a classical vein before moving out into another excellent Kauflin solo over a solid foundation from the bassist and active snare work. There's a hint of Keith Jarrett in the flowing piano solo that leaps from speedy single-not runs to hearty chordal work.  The final Trio cut is the hard-swinging "Up and Up", a good description of the energy level of the 3 musicians.

There have been a number of articles and blog posts over the past year about the "death" or, worse, the insignificance of jazz on the contemporary music scene. One could argue at length about the significance of any musical form but when you listen to "Dedication" (or the works of younger musicians such as bassist Noah Garabedian , guitarist Julian Lage, saxophonist Noah Preminger), you hear music that is still vital, moving forward and fighting complacency. Justin Kauflin understands the sacrifices a musician makes for his craft, learning from his mentors (including the late Mulgrew Miller) that "playing" is work until it is subsumed into your person and then it really is play, the pure joy of sitting at your instrument and just putting your whole being into the songs.  Go find this recording and let this joyous music wash over your ears and into your soul.  For more information, go to

Give a listen:

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