Friday, October 14, 2016


R.E.M., Toronto, April, 1991

THE BAND IN THIS PHOTO ARE ABOUT TO BECOME ONE OF THE BIGGEST in the world. R.E.M. had just released Out of Time a month before I took these photos, and the band I discovered in college - the textbook college rock band - would be stadium headliners soon enough, mostly thanks to the success of "Losing My Religion."

It was probably the last moment when I'd have the sort of access that would let me shoot Michael Stipe and the rest of the group - who I'd last seen at a house party at a friend's place after they'd played Massey Hall on the Life's Rich Pageant tour - together for a NOW cover story. It was a very big deal. I just wished I still cared.

Michael Stipe, Mike Mills, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

I was a huge R.E.M. when I first heard them in college, before I'd even heard of the term "college rock." I reviewed Reckoning for my college paper, and bought records by any band mentioned in the same sentence; in retrospect, my passion for the band was a huge contributing factor to becoming a music critic not long after I dropped out - they were the sort of group who encouraged a nerdy sort of fandom, and a connect-the-dots search for influences, whether it was the songs they covered, the bands they toured with, or the people they worked with.

But that felt like a long time ago when I set up in the hotel room where I took these shots. This was early in my NOW days, when the paper still had its mandated-from-above cover template that squeezed the subject into less than half the frame, with plenty of neutral space for type, which explains the colour slides I shot with Stipe and bassist Mike Mills. I even remember hanging up after getting the call with the assignment and thinking "if only this had been five years ago."

Michael Stipe, R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

They were perfectly nice. Michael Stipe complimented me on my shoes. These are perfectly serviceable photos, and fulfilled the assignment without a hitch, but I know there's a lack of enthusiasm behind the camera,

I've written about my falling out with R.E.M. before, at length, but the short version is that they simply became less interesting to me the moment I could understand what Michael Stipe was singing - or more to the point, when he decided that we needed to understand what he was singing about, in plain language. A band whose musical world was mysterious and gnomic suddenly became didactic; they had opinions about politics, and had causes they wanted us to support. "Fall on Me," for instance, was apparently about acid rain. Who, I still wonder, is actually for acid rain?

R.E.M., Toronto, April 1991

And, not surprisingly, they became musically much less interesting. I keep looking at guitarist Peter Buck in the group photos. More than Stipe, he was my favorite member of R.E.M., the record store clerk-turned-guitar god. He looks a bit sullen here, and in my mind, the only explanation is that he'd woken up to realize he was the guitar player in the band that had just recorded "Shiny Happy People."

A decade later he'd be arrested after a drunken incident in first class on a British Airways flight. I felt so sorry for him when I read about it, as inexcusable as his behaviour was; I already had a narrative in my head about growing self-loathing, and a man standing onstage in front of thousands of people, thinking to himself "Why couldn't I have joined Rain Parade?"

And so, a very big deal shoot, except to me. I still wish I cared more. I wish I'd tried harder to get something good. But mostly I wish they'd broken up after Reckoning.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Philip Glass

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

NOT ALL PHOTO SHOOTS CAN BE SUCCESSES; SOMETIMES YOU HAVE TO FAIL. Sometimes you know you're going to fail before you take your camera out of the bag, and the best you can do is salvage some lesson, technical or creative, from the experience. I suppose this is why I've always gone back to the photos I took of composer Philip Glass, back in the early years of my career.

Glass was someone I'd always wanted to photograph, but I didn't have the pull to get anything like a portrait session with the man when he showed up in Toronto in the winter of 1989, so I had to content myself with a small press conference held in the back room of the Rivoli, a restaurant and club on Queen West.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I don't know too many photographers who long to shoot press conferences. There's nothing you won't get that any other photographer standing over your shoulder won't get as well, and any chance of getting the subject to interact with you only happens with either luck or your willingness to make a pest of yourself.

For some reason, though, I don't recall many other photographers being at the Glass press conference, and since the room was half empty I was able to wander around, trying to get something interesting under the dim stage spotlights. Unwilling to take a risk with slow film, I loaded my camera with Kodak TMZ, a film rated at 3200 ASA, knowing that I'd get grain and contrast and not a whole lot else.

Philip Glass, Toronto, February 1989

I was - and remain - a big fan of Glass and what was very loosely called the minimalist school - Steve Reich, John Adams, Ingram Marshall and Arvo Part. As soon as I saw the scant light and knew what the film would likely produce, I decided to try and treat the whole shoot as an exercise in minimalism - not as much a portrait shoot as an excuse to make something more like an illustration.

I don't know if I had a client when I shot these and I'm not sure they were ever published, but something from this shoot ended up in my portfolio for at least a few years, until I had enough conventional portraiture to take its place. I keep coming back to these negatives, though, as they made me think about stripping down a portrait to its most basic elements, and how photography in practice is very much a graphic art.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Havana, 1995

Yosvany Terry, Havana, June 1995

I'M GOING BACK TO CUBA TODAY, OVER TWENTY YEARS SINCE THE LAST TIME I WAS THERE. I won't be in Havana, however, which is something of a relief, since I don't imagine a lot of the things I saw happening in Cuba's capitol in the early to mid-'90s have either improved or gone away. (UPDATE: Thanks to Hurricane Matthew, the press trip has been cancelled.)

I've posted photos from my first trip to Havana here and here, when I went with Jane Bunnett to document the recording of Spirits of Havana, probably her most important record. I went back four years later, on my own, to take photos for her follow up, Chamalongo. It was a year after the shortages and economic hardship of the "Special Period" led to something that hadn't been seen much in Cuba for nearly four decades - riots against the government.

It might explain why the city seemed unusually subdued, even sombre. One thing that I couldn't help but notice, though, was that there was a curious absence of stray cats and dogs on the streets. It was on this trip that a friend - someone who worked for the government, no less - warned me to stay away from the Cuban sandwiches.

"I don't think that's pork in them," he said, ominously.

Havana, Cuba, June 1995

I took my cameras out on the street, of course, in the spare time I had during that week, between portrait shoots. For some reason, though, I didn't shoot as much 35mm as I had four years earlier, and most of my contacts were made with the Rolleiflex. It was probably because, by the mid-'90s, I was far more interested in what I could do with medium format film, and had also fallen hopelessly in love with the square format frame. (A love that has persisted until today.)

I was trying to pare down my photos to the cleanest, starkest compositions I could manage, though the photo above of the rooftops of the city, taken from the balcony of a friend's apartment in Centro Habana, isn't very minimalist at all. I tried not to dwell too long on the ruined buildings, as hard as they were to avoid (a whole building had collapsed just before I arrived, I was told) though the photo of the basketball court next to the Malecon - my favorite shot from this trip - gave just enough of a hint of that ongoing decay for me.

Partagas Cigar Factory, Havana, June 1995

I asked my government connection if he could arrange a tour of the Partagas cigar factory for me while I was there. The cigar craze was in full swing by the middle of the '90s, and I'd become an enthusiastic smoker when I could afford it. I probably had some vague ambition to sell some of these shots to one of the cigar magazines when I got home, though how I would have done that I couldn't tell you, then or now.

I shot quite a lot of film at Partagas, colour and black and white, desperate to capture as much of the atmosphere and detail as possible. Looking over the contact sheets today, it's the portraits of the workers that stand out, with these three among the best. I also can't help but notice how thin everyone looks, especially compared to Habaneros four years earlier.

Frank Emilio Flynn, Havana, June 1995

My main reason for the trip was to get portraits of the musicians Jane had played with during the sessions. I'd met Frank Emilio Flynn before, when he'd been on the Spirits of Havana sessions, and when he'd come to Toronto for concerts Jane had organized. He was a dear man, and I felt privileged to visit him at his home in what was once a prosperous suburb of the city near Vedado.

Frank was a legendary figure in Cuban music, who formed a link between the older son traditions and the Afro-Cuban jazz revolution of the '50s. His eyesight had been damaged at birth, and he was completely blind by the time he was a teenage piano prodigy. I tried to capture some of the stateliness of his playing, and his considerable dignity. It helped that the light coming from the street through the big windows of his home was so lovely.

Merceditas Valdes & Tata Guines, Tropicana Club, Havana, June 1995

I had shot Merceditas Valdes for the Spirits of Havana sessions, in which she and her husband, Guillermo Barreto, had played key roles. Guillermo, tragically, had died not long after those sessions, and I could see when I met Merceditas in the lobby of the Inglaterra, my hotel, that she was doing very poorly herself. She was dressed in santera white, and was a real celebrity in the Inglaterra's lobby, basking in the attention of the staff.

We took a cab out to the Tropicana club, one of the few relics of the Batista/Lansky/Traficante era to remain in business under Fidel. Waiting for us was conga player Tata Guines, another legendary figure from the Afro-Cuban music era, who set up his drums by the club's famous fountain.

Tata scared the shit out of me. He had an intimidating reputation, and gave off an air of menace that it was hard to miss even if you hadn't heard any of the rumours or stories that attached themselves to him. He was known as a hard man, even though he probably wasn't as scary as his wife, who once stuck a knife in him.

I posed the two of them together with the fountain in the background, and they quickly began running through a series of practiced poses that they'd probably learned for publicity shots and LP covers back in the '50s. It was touching to see them there, in the middle of this carefully preserved throwback to Havana's less than austere past, and even as I took these photos I felt like I was catching the last moments of a musical era quickly passing. Taken together, everything I shot on this trip had an inescapably elegaic feel.

Yosvany Terry on the Malecon, Havana, June 1995

Not everything I photographed was about the past, however. While I was in Havana, Jane had asked me to take some promo shots for a young saxophonist she was trying to help out. Yosvany Terry was from a musical family, and had come up through Cuba's music schools with a fantastic reputation. I met him at my hotel and walked down to the Malecon, the seaside boulevard, where I wanted to take some shots that hinted at what could become an iconic talent. (Which explains the obvious echo of Dexter Gordon in the photo at the top of this post.)

It's worth noting that the saxophone Yosvany posed with in these shots was broken; even for a talented young player, getting instruments repaired was a challenge, and Jane had set up a charity to help provide instruments, parts and repairs for Cuba's young musicians. Yosvany would, however, overcome this brief setback, and leave the country for New York, where he'd play with major figures like Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, Henry Threadgill and Taj Mahal. Today Yosvany Terry lives in Harlem, is a Rockefeller grant recipient, and was hired by Harvard last year as a senior lecturer and Director of Jazz Ensembles.

Merceditas Valdes died in Havana on June 13, 1996.

Frank Emilio Flynn died in Havana on August 23, 2001.

Tata Guines died in Havana on February 4, 2008.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Cassandra Wilson

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

I ONCE ASKED MY MOTHER WHAT SHE THOUGHT ABOUT BILLIE HOLIDAY. My mom lived through the big band era as an adult, and saw bands all the time at local dancehalls like the Palais Royale and the Palace Pier. Her favorite singer was Bing Crosby. I was just getting into jazz and had heard a lot about Holiday, so I did something I rarely did as a teenager and asked her what she thought about music.

"I didn't like her," my mother said. "She had a lisp."

As a budding music snob learning about jazz, I'd end up avoiding vocalists, opting for the classic bias toward powerhouse drummers or tenor sax players, so while I eagerly sought out records by Elvin Jones or Coleman Hawkins, I'd vaguely mutter an opinion about how Lambert, Hendrick and Ross were "corny" or some such nonsense. It was probably Coltrane's record with Johnny Hartman that cured me of my silly aversion, but the singer who really brought me around to jazz vocalists was Cassandra Wilson.

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

Wilson came out of Steve Coleman's M-Base collective in the '80s, a group of young jazz musicians trying to navigate a path through the post-fusion, Marsalis-dominated jazz scene without creating retro jazz. She was, as far as I can recall, the only singer in the group, and the album that broke her big time was 1988's Blue Skies, a record of standards that showcased her husky contralto in a standard trio setting.

I played the record constantly in the loft studio apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend and her sister - so much that her versions of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and "My One and Only Love" are still my mental soundtrack to our long break-up. Wilson could have set herself up with a nice career doing standards in front of trios or big bands, but she decided to be a bit more interesting and followed it up with records that featured her versions of songs by Robert Johnson, Joni Mitchell, Hank Williams, U2, Neil Young, Jimmy Webb, and a really remarkable cover of the Monkees' "Last Train to Clarkesville."

Cassandra Wilson, Toronto, October 1990

When Wilson came to Toronto for a gig booked by promoter Serge Sloimovits at the Top of the Senator in 1990, I couldn't let the opportunity for a portrait pass. I don't know if I had a client for this shoot - I have a vague memory of getting my friend Tim Powis, then working at HMV magazine, to assign an article - but I turned up at the club at soundcheck with my lights and set up in a dressing room backstage. Perhaps Serge set it up for me as a favor.

I didn't imagine it would be a difficult shoot. I had a pretty good handle on my single softbox lighting set-up and cross-processed slide film, and Wilson herself was quite lovely, so I had high hopes for the shoot. The frame at the top was my favorite, then and now - the sort of elegant pose that I always struggled to steer my subjects into making, though it never really happened unless they found their way to itself. I know it was in my portfolio for as long as I had one, though I don't know if I ever managed to make a print with the particular warm tones I was able to get with this scan and Photoshop.

Cassandra Wilson has managed to produce an impressive discography in the quarter century since I took this photo, which included a long sting on Blue Note records. If you're anything like me, you'll start with Blue Skies and keep buying from there. At some point in the '90s I began collecting records by jazz singers, and haven't stopped.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Jazz Passengers

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

AS I SAID IN YESTERDAY'S POST, IT TOOK ME A WHILE TO "GET" JAZZ. Besides a collection of Benny Goodman small band sides with Charlie Christian, the only other jazz record I owned as a teenager was probably the first record by the Lounge Lizards, a band that came out of New York City's punk scene, and who billed themselves with the tongue-in-cheek description "fake jazz."

I bought their first record, which featured a very timely (for the early '80s) mix of moody, film noir-inspired jazz and what we'd later call "skronk," and made me a lifelong fan of guitarist Arto Lindsay. It was probably thanks to his stint in the Lounge Lizards that I was so eager to get a portrait of drummer Anton Fier. Years later, I'd end up at a table in the Knitting Factory in New York sitting next to Lounge Lizards founder John Lurie. I felt like a complete nerd, but I bummed a cigarette off of him, just so I could say I did it. In my defense, I actually did smoke at the time.

Inevitably the fake part of the fake jazz label began to fade, and by the time of their second lineup, the Lounge Lizards were an actual jazz group, playing clubs and festivals all over the world, with great musicians like Mark Ribot on guitar, Dougie Bowne on drums, Roy Nathanson on saxphone and Curtis Fowlkes on trombone. Nathanson and Fowlkes formed a spin-off band, the Jazz Passengers, and in 1990 they came to Toronto for a show.

Roy Nathanson & Curtis Fowlkes, Toronto, June 1990

The club, the Bermuda Onion, was located in what was once a high end dim sum restaurant on the city's most expensive shopping street, in a landmarked modernist building. It was always a strange place to see jazz acts, but the music was undergoing a brief resurgence at the turn of the '90s, and whenever this happens there's always some noble soul who thinks it would be a great idea to open a jazz club.

I opted not to try and shoot the whole band - frankly, they didn't seem like they were too enthusiastic about the prospect - so I asked Fowlkes and Nathanson if they'd like to step outside the club, to a marble-lined stairwell that was deserted after the shops downstairs had closed. It looked good as a background texture, and had the added appeal of forcing my subjects - literally - into a corner, which is always a good portrait tactic, as Irving Penn will tell you.

Curtis Fowlkes & Roy Nathanson, Toronto, June 1990

To be frank, I was relieved when the band expressed their disinterest in a photo, since Fowlkes and Nathanson - tall and short, black and white, serious and comic - provided such a great visual contrast together. I was pretty pleased with how these shots turned out, but I don't know that anyone has seen them since they were shot, over twenty-five years ago.

The Jazz Passengers went on to have a fairly high profile career for a jazz group in the following years, after they teamed up with a variety of sympathetic vocalists including Elvis Costello and Blondie's Debbie Harry. With jazz as an art music becoming increasingly obscure, they understood how it could provide the setting for a competent singer and a worthwhile tune, and made records that clicked with mature listeners with more catholic tastes - perhaps even old punks who knew how noisemakers from lower Manhattan clubs could end up making smart sounds for sophisticated adults.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ronald Shannon Jackson

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

I WASN'T ALWAYS A BIG JAZZ FAN. It took me years to really understand the music, starting when I was a teenage punk and heard the Benny Goodman small groups playing over the speakers in a vintage clothing shop on Queen West. I remember buying the first Lounge Lizards record, mostly because I liked their look, A few years later a college friend patiently tried to nudge me along, encouraging me to buy Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, taking me to see Wynton Marsalis at Convocation Hall.

It wasn't until I was working as a music critic at Nerve magazine, where I met Tim Powis and Howard Druckman, who told me about a whole school of noisy, aggressive, funk and punk-affiliated post-fusion jazz happening mostly in New York City - artists like James Blood Ulmer, Joe Bowie and Defunkt, Material, John Zorn, Jamaladeen Tacuma and Ronald Shannon Jackson's Decoding Society.

While some part of me wishes I'd become a jazz fan thanks to Coleman Hawkins or Lee Morgan or John Coltrane, I have to admit that I was only completely won over when Shannon Jackson joined forces with Material's Bill Laswell, German saxophonist Peter Brotzmann and guitarist Sonny Sharrock to form Last Exit - a poundingly loud, noisy "supergroup" that made rank and file jazz fans recoil in horror (and probably still does.)

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

Which is why I was thrilled when Ronald Shannon Jackson came to Toronto in the summer of 1991, playing at the Bermuda Onion, a short-lived jazz club on the city's toniest shopping street, with his band. My enthusiasm was such that I don't remember if I had any kind of backing for this shoot, which I probably did on spec, nudged along by the probability that I knew the promoter or booker.

I did the shoot in a hallway behind the club - the only large space with enough clean white wall to set up my lights. I did a roll with Shannon Jackson and his whole band - not scanned or posted here because it was exactly the sort of messy composition you'd expect with six or seven people in a clump - and a few where Shannon Jackson insisted on being photographed playing his flute.

Ronald Shannon Jackson, Toronto, June 1991

I didn't include those, either because, hell, why take a picture of one of the most powerful drummers you've ever seen playing a flute? I mostly did it to be nice.

There are pretty OK portraits, but probably not the best I've ever done. As with anything I was shooting at the time, I always imagined them becoming album covers, if I was lucky. And I'm pretty sure that anyone who's seen it knows how much this photo had to do with the one at the top of this post.

Ronald Shannon Jackson died in Fort Worth, Texas on October 19, 2013.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Claude Ranger

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

A CAREER IN JAZZ CAN BE A VERY FRAGILE THING. Gigs are scarce and recording dates scarcer and whole careers can come and go with only glimpses captured in a handful of records and a few photos or newspaper articles. I suppose the precedent for this was set right at the beginning of the music with Buddy Bolden, a hugely influential, even legendary New Orleans trumpeter for whom no recordings exist.

Claude Ranger's career wasn't nearly as obscure as Bolden's, though he was a legendary figure in Canadian jazz, made more so by his mysterious exit from the scene and the fact that he left without any commercially available recordings of himself as a bandleader. When I took these photos of the Montreal-born Ranger in the summer of 1988 he was hardly obscure; after living in Toronto for many years he'd moved to Vancouver, but was still in demand here as a sideman, and had come back to do some dates with my friends Jane Bunnett and Larry Cramer, just after having played on Jane's debut record, In Dew Time.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

I photographed him twice, and thanks to my friend Mark Miller I've been able to figure out that one shoot - a dim, shadowy set of photos - was taken at Sneaky Dee's, a little Mexican eatery/club that was located at Bloor and Bathurst before it moved down Bathurst to College and became a legendary punk rock dive. I shot a whole roll tucked into a corner of the stage, trying to get a good shot of Claude in the shadows near the back.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

The other shoot was apparently at Clinton's, where I was so desperate to get some good photos of Ranger playing that I brought my own lighting - a single flash on a light stand, bounced into an umbrella - and shot him during soundcheck. Drummers are notoriously the hardest people to get decent shots of during a show, since they're usually at the back of the stage, in the worst light, and moving constantly. I suppose Claude knew this, which is why he agreed to let me do this little staged setup - halfway between a live shoot and a portrait.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

Claude was a monster of a drummer, famous for his stamina and energy and love of improvisation, but also for his ability to keep a cigarette lit in the corner of his mouth for a whole set, lighting each new one off the old butt without breaking stride, even during a solo. My good friend and jazz mentor Tim Powis, also a drummer, was a huge fan, and was probably my inspiration for trying to get some really decent shots of Claude playing.

Claude Ranger, Toronto, July 1988

Claude lived pretty hard, and ended up with health issues that saw his public appearances get scarcer in the late '90s. He played a lot of shows with a lot of people, but few of them ended up becoming records, and so Ranger's career ended up being one recalled only in glimpses and stories. It probably didn't help that he lived in all three major Canadian cities, each with their own discrete, sometimes insular scenes, and seemed to care more about playing concerts than negotiating record deals.

There are more than a few jazz careers like Claude Ranger's here in Canada, and while a lot of them have a tragic component, none of them end so mysteriously as his. It's confounding that someone who made such an indelible impression on the bandstand could simply vanish from the country's musical scene and then from the world.

Claude Ranger disappeared near the Abbotsford area of British Columbia in late 2000.