Monday, May 23, 2011

Fifty Years Gone

1961, fifty years ago, two of the most important, vital and imaginative young musicians were lost to us: trumpeter Booker Little and bassist Scott LaFaro. Amazingly enough, considering how short both their careers were, they share a recording, released under Little's leadership. Listening to a track like "Life's a Little Blue," with characteristically stupendous horn work from Booker and a typically pointed solo from LaFaro, only points out how much potential was still brewing in these young geniuses. I'm just glad I was too young to have registered the shock and pain of the one-two punch of their concurrent deaths.
So break out the Bill Evans trio Village Vanguard albums and Little's masterwork, "Out Front" (albums recorded just months before each man's demise) if they are not in your regular rotation already, and reflect on what these supremely talented men did accomplish in their brief moments in the sun.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stan the Man

A jazz national treasure in the U.K., pianist, composer and bandleader Stan Tracey couldn't be less known across the pond. His career now stretches a good half century-plus, with -- so I've read -- acclaimed work for all manner of jazz ensembles. Not that I've heard 99% of it. But the little that has crossed my path has been arresting, beckoning me to investigate further. Tracey's 1965 musical adaptation of Dylan Thomas's "Under Milk Wood" may be his best known work. Again, my knowledge of all this is far too sketchy. I haven't heard the entire album, but if it's consistent in quality with "Starless and Bible Black," it must be one gorgeous recording.
On this languid ballad, Tracey himself takes a back seat to his tenor saxophonist, one Bobby Wellins, who is appropriately suggestive rather than assertive. Whether the performance suits Thomas's literary thrust is immaterial in light of its stand-on-its-own beauty. Sounding, in the best possible manner, like a memorable film theme, a la Jerry Goldsmith's near perfect credit music for Chinatown, "Starless and Bible Black" makes me want to produce a movie just so Tracey's glorious work could accompany it.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Books and Covers

Here's a potential blindfold test item that might separate the men from the boys. Hampton Hawes was a funkmeister supreme, a swinging stylist whose notes were etched in blue. Like Horace Silver, an obvious keyboard influence, Hawes's piano work was steadfast in its allegiance to the basic principals of hard bop. Given the opportunity, he'd rock the joint and then come back to offer a second helping.
That's why it's instructive to hear recordings like this that blow the lid off of hardened notions of musicianly style. Here Hawes takes on the the echt jazz impressionist ballad and does quite a convincing job with it. He's obviously heard Bill Evans, but doesn't mimic him. Hawes finds his own way into the tune, yet, paradoxically, it would be hard to identify the playing as his. In all, it's an enjoyable lesson in the importance of avoiding preconceptions.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

In The Zone

Two men taking all the time in the world stating and then ruminating on a tune they obviously both love. No tempo changes, no technical flash, practically no movement outside the mid-range. Just letting the gorgeous melody say what it has to say and then etching variations that humbly attempt to meet that beauty at least half way.
The mood is so difficult to pin down. Not a hint of overt sentimentality or self pity. Yet catching the rueful melancholy of Richard Rodger's melody as if they co-composed it themselves. Maybe it's the reverence that Baker and Bley hold for Rodgers that most permeates this performance. Or the respect they held for each other as fellow musicians.Here everyone wins: composer, soloist and accompanist. If understatement gives you chills, this one's a spine tingler.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

State of Israel

Israel Crosby was a subtle monster of the bass who was already killing as a teenager ("Blues of Israel" from a 1935 session under Gene Krupa's leadership), going on to enliven Ahmad Jamal's recordings of the 1950s. I "get" Jamal in bits and pieces. My favorite work of his is the early drummer-less trio recordings with Crosby and guitarist Ray Crawford. Miles Davis's over-the-top praise of the pianist continues to taunt me -- what did he hear that I don't? -- but then again Miles never had a kind word for McCoy Tyner. Go figure.
As for IC, his beat and rotund tone are pure pleasure. Hear him on "Profoundly Blue" with Charlie Christian and company. This was a special player whose quarter century career was actually too brief.

A vastly cleaner audio version of "Easy to Remember" can be heard on


Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Band That Could Have Been?

I don't think there were any solid plans to ever bring together Bill Evans, Jim Hall, Zoot Sims, Ron Carter and Philly Joe Jones in a working band, but wouldn't that assemblage of like-minded players have been something to experience? A tantalizing taste of what could have been can be found on the handful of tracks that this ad-hoc quintet recorded in 1962. Evans rarely employed a horn (be it saxophone, trumpet or, in that very special case, harmonica, as played by Toots Theilemans on the 1978 Affinity album) for his own recording sessions. Although there are numerous examples of his inspired interaction with horn men throughout his early career, by the time he starting running the show in 1959, Evans was loath to bring in extra artillery. And for good reason; apart from Affinity, few of his albums featuring expanded ensembles really comes off. Evans had refined the trio format to a fine art and interlopers seemed to upset the calibrated balance. Something tells me he was also a creature of habit who enjoyed the comfort zone of the compact threesome.
This session, unreleased at the time, is a noteworthy exception. Sims is the perfect saxophonist for Evans, a lyrical, melody-obsessed improviser who mates a gorgeous tone with virile, yet always relaxed, swing. And, as an older stylist who grew up worshipping at the altars of Lester Young and Ben Webster, Sims was anything but a frenetic hard bopper. Although obviously touched by bop, Sim's closest allegiance was to the rhythmic verities of the swing era, a grounded approach that suits Evans well.
Could this band have existed outside the controlled walls of a recording studio? Considering that -- as far as I know -- Carter was the only ensemble member who wasn't either plagued by drugs, drink or both, the chances of success might have been slim. Let's just be thankful we've got what we've got and cherish it.
The seven tunes (one in two takes) can be found on the album Loose Blues.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shining Silver

Was the government slipping something into the water supply in 1959? Or was it something that only jazz musicians were drinking? Let's just say it was a zeitgeist thing; change was in the air and the excitement of it all was energizing all the best players. The great Horace Silver wasn't among the cutting edge artists of the time, but if he wasn't shaking things up in the manner of Miles, Coltrane, Mingus, Brubeck, and Ornette, he was certainly honing his special artistry to a rare level of achievement. This edition of his rip-roaring hard bop ensemble was among his best. Saxophonist Jr. Cook and trumpeter Blue Mitchel get only a slice of solo time yet they make the most of it, not by cramming in all they can and racing to a blistering climax, but by constructing cogent statements that impressive through judicious concision. The leader then jumps in and stretches out, constructing a brick-by-brick improvisation that's a model of near abstract funk. His left hand never wavers from the monstrous vamp while compact melodic phrases build one on top of another, spelled by crazy quotations and off-kilter traps that the pianist seems to be setting for himself. Cliches, delightfully employed, are set against twisted phrases that suggest the ruminations of a very funky four-year-old let loose on the family keyboard. And what about the steaming groove that drummer Louis Hayes and the underrated bassist Doug Watkins lay down? Yes, '59 was a very good year.