Monday, August 30, 2010

A Road Not Taken

John Gilmore spent the better part of his professional career playing with Sun Ra, a gig that allowed him to not only play smoking tenor saxophone and clarinet but to chant in harmony when called on, play various percussion instruments, and wear funny hats and colorful vests. (And live in a communal situation with an orchestra–load of men, but let’s not go there.) Who could resist that? Well, Gilmore himself apparently did, at least for a brief moment in the mid-1960s when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He can be heard to fine effect on the Blakey album “S’Make It,” but actually seeing him with the band concretizes this strange interlude. The fact that Gilmore sounds so good in a straightforward hard bop setting gives us a tantalizing taste of a career path he might have taken. With Blakey breathing down his neck in that hit-it-or-hit-the-road way of his, Gilmore turns in a charging solo that sets off lucidity with passion. So much so that the gale force solo by Lee Morgan that follows doesn’t diminish Gilmore’s efforts in any way. But space was obviously the place for Gilmore and he soon returned to the Sun Ra fold -- hard bop’s loss was Saturn’s gain. For more strong Gilmore work minus the Sonny Blount unit, try “The Artistry of Freddie Hubbard” on Impulse!

Friday, August 27, 2010

Baby Steps

What a fascinating clip this is! Remove the images of Burton and Company's Summer of Love getups -- drummer Bob Moses's Nehru nightmare wins the prize -- and you might think you were listening to a particularly hip performance from, say, Red Norvo. In all, it's more a delicious bit of modern chamber jazz than a glimpse of the fusion future. Steve Swallow is still on acoustic bass, Coryell has yet to turn up the juice, Moses is on his best behavior, and Burton remains downright polite. Tame only in relationship to where things would go in a year or two, this band could have stayed in this relatively conventional mode and still have generated interest as a kind of updated Modern Jazz Quartet. But the siren song of fusion was calling, and each of these men had to answer it in his own way.
Still, those are some sweet threads!

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Fusion Pipe Dreams: Part One

By the mid-Sixties, if not earlier, Miles Davis was actively listening to pop and rock music. By the late-Sixties his own music was displaying rock influences -- hear the Hendrix-derived "Mademoiselle Mabry" from the 1969 opus "Filles de Kilimanjaro" for starters. In 1970 Davis recorded a spacey, Indian-infused take on David Crosby's "Guinnevere," which had debuted just a year earlier on the first Crosby, Stills and Nash album. Ever since hearing that performance (first released in 1979) I've tended to file away classic rock tunes that I wish Davis had looked into. "Coming Back To Me" is one of the Jefferson Airplane's masterpieces, a moody sonic dream that stands as one of the great ballads of the era. The Airplane had certainly been listening to Miles: Grace Slick, the composer of "White Rabbit," -- yet another masterpiece from the glorious "Surrealistic Pillow" album of 1967 -- described the song as being a cross between "Sketches of Spain" and "Bolero." Although Slick had actually written the song for an earlier band, The Great Society, Davis was obviously still in her ears. Hear her recorder obligato to Marty Balin's plaintive vocal on "Coming Back To Me." In her own modest, hesitant manner, Slick is channeling Davis. Maybe that's what alerted me to the song's potential for an MD interpretation. I can just hear Davis etching his way through a diaphanous melody that seems to evaporate in the air, right after piercing your heart.
File this one under Fusion Pipe Dreams...

Wayne Shorter: Role Model

Sometime in the Fifties, the great jazz critic and aesthetician Andre Hodeir wrote a crusty essay, "Why Do They Age So Badly?" stating his contention that jazz was strictly a young man's game. It was a dumb idea then and it remains just as dumb now, particularly with Wayne Shorter giving lie to the entire notion as we speak. Just in time for a new millennium, Shorter, then into the seventh decade of his musical career, assembled the first permanent, fully acoustic jazz ensemble he had ever led, and began making the most avant garde music of his life. In league with a quartet of considerably younger players, Shorter's music became more responsive, elliptical, mysterious, poetic, unpredictable, dramatic, disruptive, and gorgeously arresting than it had been since the saxophonist left Miles Davis's band in 1969. There are more dangerous ideas in that septuagenarian head of his now than there ever were. In his own dart-and-dash improvising, lyrical writing and open form band leading, Shorter outstrips the majority of contemporary jazz musicians, young or old. If this is jazz maturity, I say bring it on.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Israels On Israel

Say what you want about Chuck Israels as a musician; as a man, he must be applauded for his sheer guts. I happen to hardily admire Israels as a bassist, particularly his 1960s work with Bill Evans -- the gig that, like it or not, Israels will be most remembered for. A straightforward player with a sturdy tone and an ever musical imagination, Israels nonetheless never stood a chance when it came to critical reputations. His guts had much to do with that. In 1962 Israels took on one of the most challenging roles a jazz player has ever placed him or her self in. After the sudden death of the bassist Scott LaFaro, his employer, Bill Evans fell into an understandable funk. LaFaro had not only revolutionized the role of the jazz bass, granting it an unprecedented independence, he and Evans (as well as trio mate drummer Paul Motian) had also developed a group concept that similarly liberated established roles within a small group. With his colossal technical skills and fearless inventiveness, LaFaro was a phenomenon who, like Jimmy Blanton, showed what could and should be done, and then, in the blink of an eye, was gone.
Who could replace LaFaro? Who would want want to? It was a thankless job, but someone had to do it. Enter Israels, who, while influenced by LaFaro, as was every open-eared young bassist, was already quite comfortable with his own more conventional style. He urged Evans to resume playing and became the anchor of the pianist's trio, with only intermittent gaps, between 1962 and 1966.
Israels was no revolutionary like LaFaro, but he remained a dependable and engaging player during his entire tenure with Evans. One of my favorite bass solos is his fleet and melodic turn on Johnny Carisis' "Israel," the beautifully crafted blues he recorded with Evans and drummer Larry Bunker on "Trio '65". (Numerous polished solos and solid accompaniment by Israels can be heard on other significant Evans recordings including the stunning "At Town Hall.") Bassist Eddie Gomez comes on board in 1966. According to Evans himself, as well as a legion of fans, Gomez's entrance signals an artist rebirth for the pianist. I tend to believe that Gomez, with assistance from early 70s Ron Carter, sends the acoustic bass into a maelstrom it has yet to ascend from, but that's another story ...

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Charlap Steps Out

Bill Charlap is special. Here's a performance that glories in melody. Billy Strayhorn's tune, originally found on Duke Ellington's 1957 album "Such Sweet Thunder," is stated with minimal embellishment by the pianist; his gorgeous touch and judicious use of space tell the story. Deep improvisation is beside the point, yet only a seasoned jazz player could have pulled off this performance with such taste and grace. Knowing what not to say, becomes the mark of genius.
Charlap's surrounded here not by his regular trio mates, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, but by bassist Jay Leonhart and drummer Bill Stewart in a group dubbed the "New York Trio" to distinguish it from the Washington-based crew. And once again I'm made aware of how extra special Charlap sounds when stepping out on the Washingtons. Piano trios don't come any tighter, but I find Charlap's usual trio too constrained, too formal. (Charlap's admiration for Oscar Peterson may express itself more fully in the airtight group concept, rather, thankfully, than in Charlap's own playing.) Kenny Washington knows his hard bop lexicon backwards and forwards, but, to my ears, he's not the most sympathetic of percussionists, particularly in this setting. Whitney Balliett would use the word "pinioned" when describing overly rigid drummers, and that's the adjective that always springs to mind when I hear Kenny W. with Charlap. I much prefer the pre-Washington albums that Charlap made with other rhythm teams, including "Distant Star," "Souvenir" and "Along with Me." Those recordings display a sense of relaxation and expansion that went noticeably missing when Charlap hooked up with with the regular crew.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Effective Guitar Work

Now here's a band that, hopefully, won't find itself tossed off in the far receses of jazz history. I profess total ignorance of Julie Andrews' rendition of this lighter-than-air ditty as sung in the 1966 film "Hawaii." But I do know that Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-winning song brings out the best in Frisell and Scofield. This performance also demonstrates the significant importance of technology as it applies to individual style: both guitarist's distinctive sounds are dependent on the electronic effects they are utilizing. Products of the rock era, these effects are judiciously used, in the hands of sensitive players like Frisell and Scofield, to enhance an unmistakeable jazz aesthetic.
Frisell unveils the spacious lyricism we've come to expect from him; Scofield, for his part, is particularly aware of the value of the chiseled phrase -- being in continual contact with Frisell must have rubbed off on him. A special performance from a near-forgotten band well worth investigating.

"My Wishing Doll" can be heard in its original recording on "Bass Desires" (ECM Records)

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Listen and Weep

For a guy who could blow anyone off the stage (or out of a recording studio) with the sheer velocity of his playing, Johnny Griffin also knew how to take it way, way down. What made Griffin truly great was his seeming awareness of each note he played, applying the appropriate heft and warmth to achieve a tone that coated the air. The notes could fly fast, but they all had weight, each packing a visceral punch. I love how he takes his time here, making sure every musical utterance counts. (Ok, I'm not so crazy about that hoary blues riff at the conclusion of his solo, but he makes up for it with his concluding Ben Webster-ish flutter, a subtly beautiful homage. )

I also enjoy the non Duke-like arrangement by Kornel Fekete-Kova with that nifty sax interlude following Griffin's improvisation, and the obviously practiced Budapest Jazz Orchestra with its brace of flugelhornists. Discerning expats like Griffin could always find the cream that the Continent offered.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Less Than Less Is More

The more I listen to John Lewis, the pianist, the more radical he seems. A brilliant composer and bandleader, Lewis was also a uniquely receptive accompanist, surrounding his fellow Modern Jazz Quartet member Milt Jackson, or, for that matter, anyone onboard, with impeccable chordal jabs or, his specialty, melodic phrases that draped the improviser in counterpoint clover. With the spotlight trained on him, Lewis displayed the same wit, ingenuity and unsparing frugality. A quiet iconoclast, Lewis was a staunch minimalist long before the term came into common use. If something could be said with four notes, why not play two? Or even one?
His economy of means is downright audacious, particularly in an era when pianists were still dealing with the implications of Art Tatum and Bud Powell, musical tigers who regularly devoured as much of the keyboard as was humanly possible. (Comparing Lewis with the era's most popular jazz pianist, the proudly prolix Oscar Peterson, is a hoot; they may as well be playing different instruments.)

Here, Lewis interprets his most famous composition, one he probably played hundreds of times by 1965, with characteristic freshness. His internal editor is working overtime, cutting, cutting, cutting -- yet everything that needs to be said is all there. Hemingway spoke of the iceberg effect that he aimed for in his spare writing, implying rather than revealing the mass that was hidden under the sea. This is that effect translated into jazz practice.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Muddy Swings

Why does this 1963 version of "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" swing so hard? The rock steady groove that bassist Willie Dixon and drummer Clifton James lay down, unswerving yet bursting with sheer bounce, doesn't hurt. Nor do Buddy Guy's perfectly placed acoustic guitar fills. But the rhythm genius is McKinley Morganfield himself. Hanging behind the band's beat, yet kicking it inexorably forward, Waters is as cool as they get: a charter member of the never-show- 'em-how-hard-you're- working school. This is swing so deceptively intense it hurts.

("GMLS" can be found on the 1964 release, "Muddy Waters, Folk Singer")

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Love Supreme

A visionary tenor wants to pay tribute to another visionary tenor -- an established master, far more acclaimed and vastly more popular -- who has nonetheless lent the younger outsider all out support. So how does Albert Ayler tip his hat to John Coltrane in early 1967? First he picks up the alto saxophone, an instrument totally peripheral to his reputation. Then he strips down his septet, sending his trumpeter brother Don and drummer Beaver Harris out for a breather. Finally, surrounded by two bassists, a cellist and violinist, Ayler trades his characteristic squall for lyrical effusions that offer his praise and respect in forthright song. No, Ayler doesn't play it straight; there's no mistaking the twisted tone and slanted phrasing. But there's also the marked sense that he's exploring a different route of expression here, one that seeks exultation not by way of extroverted displays of emotion, but through relative restraint. Ayler could stir up musical trouble at the drop of a hat; his friend John deserved something special and he got it.
Little wonder that Ayler, along with fellow epoch shaker Ornette Coleman, had the bittersweet privilege of being the handpicked musical performers at Coltrane's funeral later in the year.

(Groovy as this visual tribute may be, to hear "For John Coltrane" in pure audio splendor head for Albert Ayler: Live In Greenwich Village: The Complete Impulse Recordings)

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Don Who?

Don Joseph is (was?) a footnote to a footnote in jazz history. A trumpeter and cornetist who spent the 1950s building a sturdy reputation among discerning leaders, he was already off the national scene by the end of the decade. Joseph makes a surprising reemergence on a recording done for (who else?) Uptown Records in 1984: the impressive "One of a Kind." And then he's gone again, or at least from recording studios.
It's a shame, because Joseph was one of those musicians who was truly wedded to the lyrical. Much like Tony Fruscella, another obscure trumpeter he's often linked with, Joseph was a curious amalgam of bop and earlier jazz influences. You hear echoes of Bobby Hackett and Buck Clayton, Chet Baker and Miles Davis, Bix Beiderbecke and Armstrong, in Joseph's finest playing, all wrapped in his own warm, rounded sound. His well-crafted improvisations, laden with melody, never overstay their welcome. Joseph always found, as my friend Seth likes to say, "the pretty notes," but there was nothing cloying about his work. Making pretty, he reminds us, can be a tough job.
Here's one of the only two clips of Joseph that have surfaced on YouTube. I have no idea when this was shot-- I'm assuming sometime in the 1980s or early 90's. Joseph, playing "Embraceable You" on cornet, is in fine fettle, blowing the pretty notes with customary ease, injecting subtle bop rhythms to goose the flow. I find it very moving to hear how Joseph's achingly lyrical solo inspires trumpeter Mike Morreale to his own quite lovely lyrical improvisation. Enjoy.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Old Faithful

I was alerted once again to the power of certain durable standards after unearthing an admittedly minor recording from 1989, "Art Deco" by Don Cherry. One of those projects that looks great on paper yet just doesn't come alive to any truly satisfying degree, "Art Deco" unites three members of Ornette Coleman's original quartet: trumpeter Cherry, drummer Billy Higgins and bassist Charlie Haden. They are joined by tenor saxophonist James Clay, a virile stylist with a spotty recording career -- 29 years separate his first session as a leader from his next. "Art Deco," with Cherry in noticeably restrained form, always struck me as an officially released rehearsal tape. There's a tentative feeling to the entire session; the participants only really spur each other on during the final track, "Compute." Even attributing leadership to Cherry, rather than the quartet at large, seems a bit spurious, as each of the foursome are given featured performances.
One of these features is the jewel. "Body and Soul" exists as a looming challenge to tenor saxophonists ever since Coleman Hawkins' historic 1939 hit recording-- You approach "Body and Soul" with serious intentions or you don't come to it at all.
Clay takes to it like catnip. Announcing his focus with a short introductory burst of force, he approaches the performance with clarity and poise in mind. His breathy tone and darting approach suggest vintage Rollins at times, but Clay remains his own man as he embraces a song whose crafty chord changes and memorable melodic design are a gift to a skillful player.He sounds more comfortable and individualistic on this nearly sixty year old evergreen, than he does anywhere else on "Art Deco." No surprise, "Body and Soul" can do that to you.

(Addendum time: As a pianist was left at home, Haden comes to the fore throughout, his own unaccompanied solo short and very sweet. And Clay's later feature, "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" certainly has its moments as well.)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

When Bill met Claus...Again

I came to Bill Evan's 1974 "Symbiosis" a little late. Actually I listened to it for the first time last week. Although I've had the CD reissue for years, I understand what the delay was all about. I revere Bill Evans above all jazz pianists, yet I have my limits of veneration. By 1970 his playing had begun to significantly change, and not, to my ears, for the better. In his final decade, Evan's improvisations took on a brittle, slightly mechanical edge, marked by a heavier touch and distracting forays into the higher register that lent his playing an artificial flavor. His ballads became mannered and schmaltzy in a way that would have been previously unacceptable to him; his uptempo excursions frenetic and mechanistic. (Long before I knew of Evan's problems with cocaine during that last decade, I felt his playing was becoming increasingly and uncomfortably nervous.)
Others love this period, believing that Evans was stretching himself, deliberately taking a more aggressive stance than lent his playing a deeper swing than ever before. I mostly hear anxiety and artistic uncertainty. Of course there are performances of extreme beauty scattered throughout the last ten years, but for me, 1958 (when Evans joins up with Miles Davis) to 1968 ("At the Montreux Jazz Festival'' being the last fully satisfying album) is the period I return to when I want to get caught up in the umbra of pure creativity.
So "Symbiosis" was not high on my must-hear list. And, having finally lived with it for a bit, I'm certain it's no lost masterpiece.
It is a bit nutty though, that's for sure. Evans had previously collaborated with arranger Claus Ogermann on the disasterous hack job, "Theme from the V.I.P.s" and the disappointing 1965 album, "Trio with Symphony Orchestra." Now they were back together again, only this time Ogermann was the sole composer as well as arranger and conductor. His "Symbiosis," is a two part work with a schizoid feel: a jagged woodwinds-based first movement followed by an overblown orchestral movement. (A particularly misguided interlude finds Evans taking on the electric piano, an instrument that sounds as if it's causing him increasing pain with every key touched.)
And yet...
The second movement opens with Evans featured, slowly etching a theme of fragile beauty that, while suggestive of a dozen tunes from the " Spartacus" theme to "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?," elicits a stunning Evans improvisation nonetheless. Calm, collected, avoiding cliches, the pianist sounds like his old self. And as a parting gift to both the featured soloist and the listener, Ogermann allows Evans the concluding minute of the work --a wistful reprise of the largo that reminds you why you spent the time working your way through this often bewildering project in the first place.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Caroline, Yes

I run hot and cold when it comes to Charles Lloyd. His debt to early '60s Coltrane in instrumental and compositional style is so obvious and presented in such a blatantly adoring manner by Lloyd himself that it never fails to make me uncomfortable -- and quickly bored. The sincerest form of flattery? Perhaps. But it takes stronger listeners than myself to wade through yet another ten-plus minute modal vamp improv, a la Trane's 1961 "India," that regularly pervade Lloyd's ECM recordings. And don't get me started on the West Coast spiritualism and, worse, the maracas.
Yet when the time comes to caress a ballad, few tenor saxophonists possess Lloyd's concentrated power and heartfelt tone. Coltrane is still peeking through the notes, but Lloyd seems to be tapping into the earlier take-your-time stance of the sax giants of his youth. Whether Lloyd actually listened to Johnny Hodges or Ben Webster or Lester Young (how could he not?) is less the point than that he somehow absorbed a pre-bop aesthetic that imbues his most thoughtful work --be it a standard or even a free improvisation -- with a more personal sound and cogent ideas.
His next recording, "Mirror" (to be thoughtfully released on my birthday in September) has its share of lovely moments, notably a surprising take on Brian Wilson's "Caroline, No" that does justice and then some to the "Pet Sounds" classic. I applaud Lloyd for his occasional off-the-wall choices of repertoire, but they don't always work. ("God Give Me Strength, the stirring Bacharach-Costello ballad on "Voice In the Night" didn't come off at all, but then again, no one has been able to bring out its true luster other than Costello himself). Lloyd respects Wilson's winsome melody, yet extends the song's form, to winning effect, when he needs to.
It's on performances like this, and a few choice others including "I Fall In Love Too Easily" -- with the leader on equally effectual alto -- where I hear Lloyd, the authentic, unashamedly conservative stylist and not Lloyd, the unrepentant adulator.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Leave it to Miles

It would probably be appropriate to have a first post devoted to Lester Young, but there's plenty of time to touch on his enduring genius. Miles Davis, Young's greatest heir when it came to the deployment of the perfectly placed note, the well-chiseled phrase and a judicious, ultra musical use of space, gets the nod today.
When considering how jazz musicians can make seismically significant statements in the most compact of settings, I'm always called back to the title track of Davis's 1958 album "Milestones." (The piece was entitled "Miles" on the original recording in order to avoid confusion with a different composition, "Milestones," that Davis recorded in 1947. Although Davis receives composer's credit for both tunes, pianist John Lewis actually wrote the earlier piece, but that's another story...)
So how do you alter jazz history in five minutes? First you assemble a splendid aggregate of players: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, altoist Cannonball Adderely, pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones, each integral to the success of the performance.
I love that, unexpectedly, Cannonball is first out of the gate. A prolix soloist who, at that time wouldn't think twice about rattling off a machine gun volley of bebop virtuosity, Adderely doesn't so much reign himself in here as keep melodic figures paramount in his improvisation. No wonder Davis picks up on Cannonball's last six notes to jump start his own solo, itself an incredible display of acute lyricism wedded to surprise --where does he find those off-the-wall/just right note choices? That Coltrane jumps on Davis's concluding phrase to start his own highly melodic solo is again no surprise (wouldn't you?). While the horn men take a tidy two choruses each to say all that needs to be said, Garland sits this dance out all together, contributing to the whole with perfectly placed, effortlessly swinging accompaniment. Jones and Chambers are Jones and Chambers, an incomparable rhythm team at their peak.
And the shifting of jazz as we know it? A gorgeous round of solos also couches a serious investigation into modal improvisation, the move from playing on chords to playing on scales that Davis and company would delve into deeply the next year with the sublime "Kind of Blue."

If this performance isn't a perfect example of how to move mountains in the space of a relative instant, what is?

A less sprightly but still gorgeous alternate take should be heard for the sheer invention displayed: each of the three solos are markedly different from the issued take. Just, well, beautiful.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Looking for the lyrical

The story goes that Lester Young found himself on a tour bus with a young gun saxophonist itching to show off his prodigious technique to the older master. Planting himself in front of the laconic Prez, the garrulous bebopper proceeds to blow every speed demon lick he knows in motor mouth fashion. On finishing his dash, the saxophonist looks to Young for approval, yet couches his neediness in bravado. What, he asks, did the jazz patriarch think of that display of goods? Not bad, Young answers, but can you tell me a story?
And there you have it. Like Lester, I too am hungry to hear a story told through an instrument. Not a checklist of technical achievements or a resume of ready-for-use phrases, but a well-told narrative that makes its point through melody, balance and economy, and then jumps on the fastest stagecoach out of Dodge. 
With this blog I salute improvisers, old and new, who know how to get in, get the job done and then  leave before being begged to. Style has nothing to do with it. The same sense of the beautiful as well as the importance of organization and frugality can be found in the very best players from turn-of-the-century New Orleans  to today's budding jazz visionaries. 
Nonetheless, it's a rarer quality than might be expected and getting rarer all the time. I want to applaud this sensitivity to the poetic wherever I hear it, be it in an older recording or on a bandstand last night.
Can you tell me a story?