Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freddie Hubbard Dies at 70

A blast from the vast goes into the past. Okay, I got a little carried away there. But trumpet man Freddie Hubbard was the genuine article: a straight ahead hard-bopper, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. He played with the Jazz Messengers in the early sixties, and made some classic recordings as leader. I highly recommend Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, and Ready for Freddie. I'll try to do a decent review of these sometime this week, in honor of Hubbard.

Meanwhile, here is a sample from a lesser known but very strong recording, Red Clay (1970). It features Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Joe Henderson on tenor sax. I just happened to have picked it up a few days ago at Barnes and Noble in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Red Clay/Freddie Hubbard/Red Clay
And here is Hubbard playing one of his compositions with the Jazz Messengers. Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Cedar Walton on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass, and of course Art Blakey on drums.
Down Under/Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers/Mosaic
If you don't have Mosaic, for heavens sake buy it. It's pure gold from the guys that invented gold.

Best Jazz Compositions 6: Moanin'


Bobby Timmons' great composition "Moanin' appears first, I think, on the Art Blakey & and the Jazz Messenger's recording with that title. That presentation is absolutely perfect. I can't think of a better example of a hard bop passion. The way the melody is so explicitly and articulately announced, and then the players dig down into it, that is enough for the hall of fame. But the end of the piece, when the band comes back together to deliver the meat of the tune, that is the coming of the Lord. Blakey's piano man was doing God's work when he wrote this one out.

Here is Timmon's own presentation, from his Moanin' Blues. It's not bad, and I recommend the album. Another great place to hear the tune is this magnificent video clip, featuring Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey, Walter Davis Jr, Curtis Fuller, and one of my jazz heroes, Johnny Griffin. Man is this hot! When you can see the sweat running down along Art Blakey's generous smile, you have seen jazz distilled. Hubbard's solo, followed by Griffin's slicing of the tune, each is worth othe admition price whatever is was. Curtis Fuller is as under apprecated as the song, but his spacy looking horn is not to be missed.

Nothing in music is so compelling as a compelling melody. Moanin' grabs you where it hurts so good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 5: Trane's Naima


In picking out the best single Coltrane composition (excluding the epic works), it was a hard call between 'Naima' and 'Lonnie's Lament'. Heck, maybe I'll include that one too before I get to number ten. But I seem to have the impression that 'Naima' has been covered more often.

This is surely Coltrane's most lyrical and romantic moment. Like all great romances, it strikes a very simple and pure artery of passion. It appears on Trane's Giant Steps, his single most inventive album. Here is a bit from Jazz.com:
First, it’s a gorgeous piece of writing – how many times has “Naima” been covered over the years? – and, second, it is played with great patience and restraint. The tune runs only 4 minutes 21 seconds, but the quartet is in no rush to get there. In mood, “Naima” shares traits with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, on which Coltrane played a key role just months earlier, but this is a very different piece of work, because there’s a real melody here. The rhythm section holds back while Coltrane blows simple, unadorned passages that haunt, and pianist Wynton Kelly delivers a touching solo of his own. Once while listening to this song, pay attention only to bassist Paul Chambers’ thump-thump- thumping. It’s quite revealing.
I won't try to compete with that. But here is one of my favorite covers, by one of my favorite under appreciated jazz geniuses: Arthur Blythe. 'Naima' from Blythe Byte. Blythe's horn is a bit more lush than one would expect, on top of John Hicks understated piano. Can't lose with this one.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 4: A Night In Tunisia

This one is famous enough. According to legend (read: don't think it really happened), Dizzy Gillespie composed this one on the top of an overturned garbage can. I really hope that's true! It's an unforgettable melody, made famous by Gillespie's big band and by the Jazz Messengers. Here is my favorite recording of 'Night in Tunisia' by Dexter Gordon on his magnum opus, Our Man in Paris. Most jazz fans will already have this disc, but if you don't, listen and then buy the darned thing! It is easily one of the best bop albums ever recorded.

There is also a superb video clip of Gordon performing ANIT, available on Daily Motion. It was apparently produced by Dutch TV. Gordon walks along a dark, moist, street in a trench coat and hat. The year is 1964. As he approaches the door of the nightclub, you can hear the band warming up. Gordon walks into the club, takes his hat and coat off and hands them to the guy behind the bar. He joins the band and takes up his horn and says: "And now we go into the land of the sun, and the sand dunes, and the heat ..." This clip is by God what jazz is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 3: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

In no particular order (except putting 'Round Midnight' first) my third best-in-house-jazz-composition is 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,' Charlie Mingus' homage to Lester Young. Back when I was trying, unsuccessfully, to learn to pay the guitar, I sort of learned to play this song. I have always found the melody irresistible. It appears first, I believe, on Mingus' magnum opus: Mingus Ah Um. That version is superb, and very easy to find. Another excellent version can be found on Joni Mitchell's Mingus, her homage to that Wolf Larson of jazz. Mitchell wrote lyrics.
When Charlie
speaks of Lester,
You know someone
great has gone.
That swingin'
sweetest music man,
had a Porky Pig Hat on.
Not bad. But the version I tried to learn to play was transcribed by a very patient guitar teacher from a rather obscure album by John McLaughlin: My Goals Beyond. Here's McLaughlin's cover of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Strausphunkish Music of George Russell


George Russell spent his life pursuing a theory of music. His quest began, interestingly enough, with a remark by Miles Davis in 1945. Russell asked Davis was his musical aim was. Davis answered, with that Zen master gift of his, that it was "to learn all the changes." There are a lot of stories about Miles that go like this. Anyway, Russell landed in a hospital with TB that same year, and spent 16 months working on Davis' Koan. The result was his "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization." I understand that title the way a well-trained dog understands the word "fetch." I have vague ideas about scales and such, and I can sniff around for them. But I don't understand much more than that. Anyway, Russell's theories seem to have been the foundation of the modal jazz work of Davis and Coltrane. That's pretty good, considering that Russell was working as a clerk at Macy's when his book was published.

I have been listening to Russell's early sixties work. Ezz-thetics is probably his most famous recording. It has a very interesting cover of 'Round Midnight.' Here is the title piece from Stratusphunk. It's not half bad.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 2: Blue in Green


'Blue in Green', written by Bill Evans, gets a lot less attention than 'Round Midnight', but surely deserves as much. For shear lyrical beauty, I am not sure it can be bested. And I like it for the same reason as I like Monk's great standard. Despite it's origins in the "modal jazz" experiment of Miles Davis, there is nothing the least bit abstract about 'Blue in Green.' To play either of them is to conjure up the broken heart that never mends walking down the street that is always dark. But whereas 'RM' seems to be weaving a narrative, 'Blue in Green' is much more impressionistic. Even the title suggests as much. It is the palate of emotional colors rather than the details and forms that is primary.

Evans composed the piece for Miles, and it made its debut on Kind of Blue. I doubt that version can be bested. Here is how NPR tells the story:

Davis was at a musical peak in the 1950s and had been preparing the ideas that would become Kind of Blue for years. A year before the recording, Davis slipped Evans a piece of paper on which he'd written with the musical symbols for "G minor" and "A augmented."

"See what you can do with this," Davis said. Evans went on to create a cycle of chords as a meditative framework for solos on "Blue in Green."

I don't know enough about music to appreciate the specifics, but the story is part and parcel of the song when I listen. Here is a version recorded by Evans and his astonishing trio: Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. The album is Portrait in Jazz.

It adds something to the hearing of this particular interpretation that Scott LaFaro died in an a car accident less than two years after recording this album. More significantly, his death came ten days after the Village Vanguard sessions that stand as Bill Evans' magnum opus. Jazz is rarely happy music. A lot of musical genres help us to see the beauty in the tragic side of human life. I think jazz maps out the geography of sadness with more detail and depth than any other music.

If you want a superb Christmas mixer disc, 'Round Midnight', followed by 'Blue in Green', is a very good start.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas List 3: Best Jazz Compositions


One way to give the gift of jazz is to prepare your own mixer tape of best jazz numbers from several different recordings. A possible theme would be great covers of great jazz compositions. That, of course, requires a list of great compositions. I will put some items on the list over the next few days. Maybe it will be in time for Christmas.

I was tempted to do a countdown series, ending with the number one best composition by a jazz hero. I won't do that, because I am too disorganized and lazy. I will start with number one. Here I have empirical data. I scrolled down the list of songs in my iPod, and one stood out from the crowd. I had to twiddle my thumb about three times to get through all the covers of "Round Midnight," by Thelonious Monk. I am guessing I have about thirty versions of that tune.

"Round Midnight" stands, I think, as the best single composition by a working jazz man. It is deeply romantic and, if you can remember hearing it for the first time, musically surprising. But more than anything else, it conjures up what I take to be the essential jazz setting: a dark city street, moisture on cobblestone, and a heart full up with tragedy. Hell, it even served as the title and theme for a movie. Dexter Gordon starred in Round Midnight. It got panned, but I loved it.

The composition has been done hundreds of times, I would guess. So which version is best? That would be a week long project. I have a couple of suggestions. I have already posted on version on my drop.io site: Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan. Here you have the composer and an excellent horn player beside him.

But if you are looking for something new, try this one, from Joe Henderson, The Standard Joe. Rufus Reid on bass and Al Foster on drums. Henderson is trying to find new nuggets in well sifted soil here, but I think he finds them.


Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bill Evans & Heroin


Bill Evans was my first jazz hero, largely because an English teacher at Arkansas State University introduced me to Evan's music while also introducing me to fine wine. Since then I have collected a lot of Evan's music, and there is a lot. Most of the recordings he made as leader were in the trio format. Evans made his mark as an introspective dowager, seeking the vein of true song inside any melody, and squeezing every last drop of it out. But Evans did a lot of recording. He was side man on some very important albums: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else.

One Evans recording that deserves more credit that it gets is Loose Blues. It's easy to disregard it. I picked it up in grad school, and only learned when I unwrapped the album that the recording session was a mess. Evans put the session together because he need money for smack. Apparently everyone was grumpy. Everyone included Zoot Sims on tenor, Jim Hall on Guitar, Ron Carter on Bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. That's some pretty expensive grump.

Whatever demons were chewing away at Bill Even's soul, he could still play. And he could compose. All the compositions on the recording are his. This disc makes me wish he had done more quartets and quintets. A good sample is the first number, billevans-01-loosebloose.

Check it out, and then buy the album. You won' say I steered you wrong.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Page Four Jazz For Trane


Page Four Jazz is the category in which I put avant garde and free jazz, and generally any jazz that challenges our conception of what music ought to sound like. And you say: what d'ya mean we? Well, yeah, there's the rub. A lot of jazz that sounded like noise to me at one time is now starting to sound like great art. I don't know if I have developed as a listener, or if my brain has been damaged.

But anyway here are some adventurous pieces of jazz that hover around the work of John Coltrane the way that much of avant garde hovers around Thelonious Monk. First, Archie Shepp from his album Four For Trane. The number is the Trane composition: Syeeda's Song Flute. It's pretty ragged, and I am guessing that some Trane worshipers won't like what he does with the master's work. But I find it pretty persuasive. Shepp on tenor, John Tichicai alto, Alan Shorter (Wayne's brother?) on trumpet, Roswell Rudd trombone, Reggie Workman bass, and Charles Moffett drums.

Another piece of Trane tracking is Charles Gayle, William Parker, and Rashied Ali, Touchin' On Trane. The piece is called Part B, which is very avant garde. It exemplifies the abstraction that is a common characteristic of this music. It's more out there than Shepp's tribute, but it's worth checkin' out. Parker's bass work on this piece is really astounding.

You might also check out David Murray's tribute Take the Coltrane, from The Hill. I posted this song earlier.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Christmas List 2: The Ten Best Jazz CDs You Never Heard

Buying CDs for a jazz fan is a perilous business. It reminds me of the baseball saying: "hitting them where they ain't." To give a jazz fan a good gift, you have to hit a good one by choosing some recording that is going to knock the socks off of the recipient. But you also have to pick one that he or she doesn't already have. There is no sure way to do this without measuring the tastes of your recipient, and carefully examining his collection.

With that in mind, I have complied a list of jazz CDs that don't usually appear in any top ten or top one hundred jazz recordings, and that you probably won't find in anything short of a fully stocked and dedicated jazz record store. I am looking for hidden treasures in my collection. It 's not hard to compile such a list. The hard part is weeding it out. I won't argue that the following really amounts to the top ten anything. They are just ten CDs that are as good or almost as good as their more famous counterparts, but that usually fly under the radar screen.
The first five are relatively unknown CDs by relatively under appreciated jazzmen. The second half are lesser known CDs by the jazz elite. Here goes:

1. Sonny Criss:
Sonny's Dream. Criss was a brilliant alto sax man who has no presence at all in the Barnes and Noble stacks. But this album, with a robust orchestra behind him, is a solid cornerstone of jazz. All the compositions are by Horace Tapscott, who conducts the orchestra. It thus stands apart from Criss's other fine recordings. If your friend has this one, it's going to be hard to surprise him. If he doesn't, he will be grateful for a long time. This is Criss, and Portrait of Sonny Criss are wee bit more conventional.

2. Booker Ervin:
That's It!. Like Criss, Booker Ervin is one of those jazz geniuses who doesn't have a file card at B&N or Borders. I have blogged about Ervin, with a special focus on his Book recordings: Space Book, Freedom Book, Blues Book, and Song Book. Any one of these would make a great gift to the hardbop fan who doesn't have them.

3. Pharoah Sanders, Crescent with Love. You aren't likely to find this one in the stacks, unless you are in one of the last remaining jazz stores. It's Sander's immortal tribute to the immortal Coltrane. But it is toe-curling good. Sanders is usually very frenetic and expansive, but in this recording he tones down to get the deep vein of Coltrane's composing. You will thank me for this one, or your Christmas friend will.

4. Arthur Blythe,
Focus. Blythe straddles hardbop jazz and avant garde jazz. This recording, with a mix of unusual instruments, is a pure joy. It's pretty adventurous. If you want something a little more conservative, wrap up Blythe's Byte.

5. Bobby Watson, Love Remains. Watson is another alto sax man. He played on a bunch of Jazz Messenger recordings in the 70's and 80's. He also has a very sharp web page: bobbywatson.com. You can hear a bundle of his music there. Love Remains will warm the cockles of any hard bop or post bop heart.

6. Wayne Shorter, Juju. Shorter's Speak No Evil comes near the top of any best jazz list, and especially of Tenor Sax recordings. But Juju and Night Dreamer fall short of the former in the way that ninehundred and ninety grand is short of a million. Wayne's peak as a composer. Juju narrowly wins second, in my estimation.

7. Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams,
Third Plane. This 1977 recording feels a lot like what Hancock was doing in the early sixties. But file it under Carter's bass, which comes through live and buzzing on the recording. This is happy, ice cubes in crystal music, with the kind of sympathy between musicians that makes for a classic.

8. Joe Henderson,
Relaxin' at Camarillo. Post-revival Joe. 'Y Todavia La Quiero' is so lyrical and deeply romantic, I feel like I have to listen to it in costume. It's delicious right down to the very end when you can hear Henderson breathing through his horn. Chick Corea is here and I wouldn't have expected that to work out. But Corea's keyboard is all concentration and no goofyness.

9. Bill Evans Trio with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh,
Crosscurrents. Maybe I only like this one because it was one of the first jazz albums I purchased, probably not long after it was released. It certainly doesn't get much notice in the Penguin Guide, nor any mention elsewhere. But it still makes my heart sing. Evans' laconic Trio seems saturated by the sound of Konitz's alto and Marsh's tenor. Marsh is another jazzman who always seemed to be hitting above his ranking. Pensativa may be my favorite cut from the album.

10. The Red Garland Quintet,
All Mornin' Long. Okay, so the solos are a bit long. The title cut goes on for more than twenty minutes. The Penguin Guide likes Soul Junction better, but I find the pace that album rather lethargic. All Mornin' Long has Red Garland leading another excellent rhythm section (George Joyner on bass, Art Taylor on drums), with John Coltrane playing tenor and Donald Byrd on trumpet. Here's Trane and Garland both of 'em still shootin up, but showing us why it took so long for Miles to fire them. Byrd is said to be 'coming into form' here, but it sounds like in form to me. Besides, the album cover is pure jazz feeling.

You can listen to a couple of cuts by following the hotlinked song titles in numbers 8 and 9.



Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ten Best Jazz Recordings for Christmas

I posted a list like this last year on my South Dakota Politics site, but I can't seem to find it now. So I am making a new list of the ten best jazz recordings. It's necessarily arbitrary, and it may not be the same as my last list, but it's not hard to come up with a list of CDs that any jazz fan simply must have. So here goes:

1. Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. Universally acknowledged as the finest jazz recording ever made, for what that's worth. It is just about perfect.

2. John Coltrane, A Love Supreme. A very unusual jazz album, divided into movements like a classical symphony. Extraordinary elevation and passion.

3. Wayne Shorter, Speak No Evil. My personal favorite. Spooky, lyrical, penetrating melodies.

4. Bill Evans, Sunday at the Village Vanguard. Evans was my first love. Introspective, but with a pressure of feeling that squeezes out every drip of passion from a melody.

5. Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus. The title says it all.

6. Joe Henderson, The State of the Tenor. Laconic. Exquisite. Mesmerizing. I think this was not on last year's list. What do I push off?

7. Dexter Gordan, Our Man in Paris. He showed the French who was boss! Muscular jazz at its best.

8. Cannonball Adderley, Somethin' Else. Hearing Miles Davis (sideman!) say "was that what you wanted, Cannonball?" is worth the price.

9. Charlie Mingus, Mingus Ah Um. Good thumpin' jazz. 'Good Bye Pork Pie Hat' is not to be bested.

10. Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. Gotta get Monk in the top ten. Gotta get the JM in the top ten. 2Birds. 1stone.

If you are thinking that this is all impression and what I feel right now, you're right. But if you are making out a Christmas list for someone else to get you, or buying for someone who is new to jazz and wants some, you can't go wrong with this list.

Update:

11. Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue. I am sorry, but this recording has to be squeezed into the list. The sound is excellent, and the bluesy jazz is exquisite. Just get it!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

More Mulligan, More Farmer


For some strange reason, the last two files uploaded to my drop.io site won't play with the drop.io player. They worked yesterday! It seems that you can still download the files and play them with some other software. It may be that there is some wicked file protection curse at work.

As a consolation, I have posted a couple of pieces from Art Farmer's Ph.D., and from Mulligan Meets Monk. The latter features Wilber Ware on bass, and Shadow Wilson on drums, but it is obviously a Mulligan/Monk duet. It is a splendid version of 'Round Midnight', and one can't have enough versions of that Monk classic. The sound of Mulligan's horn seems to me to be exactly right. It almost provides its own midnight mist. And for all his dominance of composition, and his world class idiosyncrasies as a soloist, Monk might have been the best accompniest in jazz. There is pure genius in the way he lays out strings of meditative notes under Mulligan's solo.

The Farmer recording features "
This sextet outing (which also includes guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist James Williams, bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Marvin "Smitty" Smith". That's from the eMusic site. I have posted Mr. Day's Dream. You can listen to them at this link:
http://drop.io/jazznotesdp3
Let's hope it is working tomorrow.


Saturday, November 22, 2008

Gerry Mulligan & Art Farmer


Okay, so I like the low horns. Guttural grunts and honks. A bass clarinet or baritone saxophone is visceral and earthy. It gets me where I digest. I like Coltrane's Africa/Brass Sessions mostly because the brass is all bass and slithering.

I also like Art Farmer. So I can say I am very pleased with What There is to Say, by the Gerry Mulligan Quartet. This is really a duet, with Farmer's trumpet and Mulligan's baritone engaged in a platonic dialogue above Bill Crow on bass and Dave Bailey on drums. The conversation between Mulligan and Farmer is exquisite. When they are not directly addressing one another, one is singing while the other writes footnotes into the margins of the text.

I have uploaded a couple of pieces from What There is to Say. One of Mulligan's finest compositions, is 'Festive Minor.' It's a beautiful ballad, and here you can see their dialogue most clearly. It opens with the two horns talking to one another, followed by a Farmer solo with Mulligan moaning beneath, and then the baritone says what it has to say. Then it's back to the duet.

I also uploaded 'My Funny Valentine,' to give some reference to Miles. It's much the same story.

You can listen to the two at my drop.io site.
http://drop.io/jazznotesdp2
If you like what you hear, you can get the whole album at iTunes.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Heavy Jazz and Not So Heavy


My dear friend Ken Laster, who produces the best jazz podcast going, In the Groove: Jazz and Beyond, sent me this note:
Man, looking at your last few Jazz Notes, I see you are getting down to some very heavy listening lately. Dolphy, Blythe, Lacy, Ascension... man that is some heavy shit.

I'm feeling like a real jazz lightweight... Your tastes have sure come along way in recent months. You are giving me a real jazz education now. I'm enjoying going along for the ride.
This was perfectly reasonable and accurate, not to mention complementary, but I have to admit that it disturbed me a little. Am I losing touch with my hardbop roots? I have certainly been listening to a lot of jazz that I wouldn't have listened to in the past, and I have been enjoying it. But there is a cost to that kind of thing. Avant Garde jazz is to most of jazz what jazz as a whole is to more popular musics: the province of increasingly smaller audiences. Have I been marginalizing myself even within the jazz world?

Well, maybe. But it occurs to me that a lot of what is produced by avant garde jazz folks like Dolphy and Blythe fits quite well into mainstream hardbop. And likewise, many hardbop heroes ventured into avant garde, sometimes doing both on the same album. Sonny Rollins The Bridge is mostly straight ahead, but it has two pieces on it that are very challenging compositions.

Arthur Blythe, one of my recent infatuations, produced a lot of very edgy jazz. But I don't think he was all that far out. Focus had a very unusual set of instruments, but consider Blythe's Bytes. Anyone who likes most of Miles Davis or Coltrane could appreciate this recording. One thing that links Steve Lacy and Arthur Blythe, and most of the Avant Garde champions, to bop, is the work of Thelonious Monk.

Check out Blue Monk, from Blythe's Bytes, on my drop.io site:
http://drop.io/jazznotesdp2
Blythe on Alto, John Hicks on piano, Dwayne Dolphin on bass, Cecil Brooks III on drums. This is four square hard bop. Maybe the moral here is that modern jazz was saved by Thelonious Monk. I have to say that my admiration for Monk is one thing that has only grown with time and eMusic downloads.

Anyway, I thank Ken for the note and the thoughts it provoked. God, but jazz is wonderful stuff!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

More than a dollop of Dolphy


More than a dollop is what you will get if you get your ears around Eric Dolphy: The Complete Prestige Recordings. This box set consists of 9 discs, and when you have got it you have by God got Dolphy. It doesn't include his most famous recording, Out to Lunch. But it does include Far Cry, perhaps his second most famous album. Far Cry is what first interested me in Dolphy.

The Prestige Box also includes the justly famous Five Spot sessions, with trumpeter Booker Little. The latter might be Dolphy's finest hour. The Prestige Box has a lot more. About six complete albums, by my count, with a lot of pieces from other stuff, like four cuts from Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis'
Trane Whistle. It also has Ron Carter's Where?, and Mal Waldron's The Quest. Oh, and there are two discs with Oliver Nelson as lead.

That is a lot of solid if frequently challenging jazz. I have written before of the problems that jazz box sets present to the collector. One new problem is very evident here: when the collection includes several sets recorded under someone else's name, they get scattered all over your iTunes library. In this case I decided to change the album information on the tracks to reflect what was originally issued, and file it under the leader's name. This means that I have several partial albums, since no tracks were included from the Lockjaw Davis disc that Dolphy wasn't on. It's really great that I can pop a disc into my computer and iTunes will get the track names for me. But we really need some better conventions for file tags.

Dolphy had a short but magnificent career. His first recording listed on the Jazz Discography Project is in 1948, when he was twenty. He died in 1964 from undiagnosed diabetes. In between, he records a lot of very basic music, and shows up on a lot of seminal discs by other jazz giants. He is on Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Oliver Nelson's Blues and the Abstract Truth, George Russel's Ezz-Thetics, and Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard and the Africa/Brass Sessions. He was equally adept at the alto saxophone, the flute, and the bass clarinet.

I think it was the latter that should have been in his funeral boat when it was shoved out to sea. The deeply hollow sound, sucking up all reality around it, was what Dolphy was about. He is clearly associated with free jazz, and sits behind Ornett Coleman on, well, Free Jazz. Dolphy's Out to Lunch is a basic document of that movement. It's pretty chaotic and occasionally down right mysterious. Almost all of it has the character of a machine producing a lot of noise as it does one is not quite sure what. But I find I can listen to it now with interest.

Dolphy was clearly a genius of improvisation. He has a persistant fondness for a slightly sour, unexpected sound; but his compositional weaving mostly produces a tapestry that is coherent and compelling. I have loaded three Dolphy pieces onto the current drop.io site.

http://drop.io/jazznotesdp2

One is the title number from Far Cry. Dolphy's opening presents the sound mentioned, but the tune as a whole is mainstream hardbop. Booker Little plays trumpet, Jackie Byard piano, Ron Carter bass, with Roy Haines on drums. "Fire Waltz" is a classic Dolphy composition, recorded at one of his live sessions at the Five Spot Cafe. Booker Little again on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Ed Blackwell on drums. Waldron's solo is especially worthy of note. Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and the Memorial Album, might be Dolphy's best recordings.

"God Bless the Child" is a solo piece, with Dolphy playing the bass clarinet, also recorded in 1961 at the Five Spot. It is included on a hodge podge album, Here and There, which is all in the Prestige box. Dolphy spins the powerful, buzzing and sqeaking horn so fast at times, it's a wonder he wasn't being followed by storm chasers. But then he spins it out slow and thoughtful, as if to wonder what all the action was about.

Eric Dolphy is worth investing in. I can recommend without reservation: Far Cry, Live at the Five Spot 1&2, and The Memorial Album. One more recording that in the box set but, mysteriously, doesn't appear in the Penguin Guide, is Mal Waldron's The Quest. Booker Ervin is on that one, and that can't be bad. A fine version of "Fire Waltz" is also there.

There are two stories about Dolphy's death. One has it that he collapsed into a diabetic coma in his hotel room, and died from insulin shock at the hospital. Another is that he collapsed on stage, and when they brought him to the hospital, the doctors assumed it was drugs. They left him in bed to sleep it off. If the latter is true, chalk up one more jazz fatality to heroin.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Jazz Library 10: Chico Freeman & Arthur Blythe


If you want to get Ken Blanchard to spend a few of his eMusic downloads on a couple of albums, one way to do it is to put Wayne Shorter compositions on both of them. Another way is to recruit Arthur Blythe to play alto.

I have written before about the "pub crawl" method of jazz collecting: when you find someone you like, see what else he has done or been in on. I was very impressed by Arthur Blythe's Focus, a brilliant mix of hard bop and avant garde jazz, with an eccentric set of instruments. So I crawled around the outlets for more Blythe. I discovered two wonderful recordings by Chico Freeman, with Blythe on board: Luminous, and The Unspoken Word. Both are treasures for any jazz library, and they are available at eMusic.

I already one Freeman recording in my collection: Destiny's Dance. It is one of the Core Collection picks in the Penguin Guide, which I heavily rely upon. But the Penguin Guide is more fond than I am of very edgy jazz. One of the numbers on DD, "Crossing the Sudan," is typical free jazz. What passes for melody is pulse: a repeated rhythm around which the solos play. It would make a good soundtrack for one of those High Definition nature shows on the 600 channels: "the Amazon pools are teaming with life". But the next number, "Wilpan's Walk," is a fusion piece of the sort that I like to think of as "beach club jazz." Drinks and smoked meat with the surf out the window, and a guy dressed in white playing the sax. Easy listening, by jazz standards.

Luminous and The Unspoken Word are compelling examples of straight ahead jazz. The former opens with "Footprints," Wayne Shorter's most celebrated composition. You can find it on Shorter's album Adam's Apple. The latter Freeman/Blythe album includes "Infant Eyes," which is probably my favorite Shorter song. You can find it on Speak No Evil. It's deep and spooky and haunting. Freeman and Blythe do it justice. The recordings are excellent. You can listen to the two Shorter compositions here:

http://drop.io/jazznotesdp2
If you like what you hear, shell out some drachmas for the albums. You won't be disappointed. It is well worth your time to compare the original Shorter recordings with the Freeman/Blythe versions.

ps. Here is a nice YouTube clip of Freeman and Blythe playing with Sam Rivers.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Abstract and the Sensual in Jazz


One of those very forgettable movies that I have never been able to forget is The Turning Point. I remember it for personal reasons (my wife of more than 25 years and I talked about it back when we were dating), and for a scene where Anne Bancroft, playing an aging ballet dancer, is taking directions from a young, arrogant choreographer. She wants to express emotions in her dance. He scolds her for this. He wants just the geometrical form of her body. Or at least that is how I remember it.

But there is something like this going on in avant garde jazz. Thelonious Monk, the greatest composer of Bop jazz, was famous for breaking music up into its constituent parts, and then recasting it in novel ways. But Monk's genius was to keep the full emotional content, along with the juke joint echoes, in each of the parts. Avant garde tends to abstract from the emotional content of musical forms, to concentrate on the weight of the forms alone. Something is gained from that, in terms of focus. I am reminded of an artist who carved ordinary objects (a pair of old boots, a mailing envelope) out of wood. This revealed the form with extraordinary clarity. But something is lost as well.

Compare the following: "Reflections," from Thelonious Monk The Complete Blue Note Recordings, with the same beautiful tune by Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. Monks early version is alive with passion, perspiration, and place. Lacy and Waldron have left all the wood shavings behind. Theirs is an abstract, geometrical chart by comparison. Again, something is gained and something is lost. You can compare the two at

http://drop.io/jazznotesdp2
But don't let me deliver it. Get the music for yourself.

Zen Noir: Jazz, Buddhism, & the Hard Boiled Detective

Zennoir2

A second piece of Buddhist cinema showed up today in its bright red Netflix jacket. Zen Noir, directed by Marc Rosenbush, and staring Duane Sharp (who looks disturbingly like Will Farrow) as the detective. It's a clever piece of film making, and one of the best film presentations of the Dharma that I have seen. Interested readers should be warned that the movie is done in a mildly surrealist style (more about that in a moment) which means that it is temporally disjointed, with a context somewhere between waking and dreaming. I have a very low tolerance for that sort of thing, but I found it largely working here.

Zennoir It's a clever idea: a blend of film noir clich├ęs with the story of the teacher/student relationship right out of classic Zen literature. It opens on the unnamed detective, hat on head in a tank top undershirt, gazing at himself in the mirror. "The morning fog clings to the city like the scent of desperation to an aging drag queen." Not quite trusting the humor yet, the detective says: "why do I talk like that?"

The detective gets a call warning of a murder in a temple. The caller sounds vaguely Chinese, but doesn't give his name or the temple. "Three synagogues later it occurred to me that there aren't many Chinese Jews."

Once he gets to the temple, he finds that his rational methods of investigation don't work there. When he asks one student where he was at the time of the murder. "What do you mean by time?" When questioned, the master will only show him an orange.

It helps to know a little bit about Zen. The orange is common metaphor for the here and now reality. If you can eat an orange, really tasting its color, fragrance, and flavor, that is enlightenment. Most of us can't. We are always drifting away from reality into daydreams, or worse, building screens against reality. A few of the jokes won't work on you if you don't have some familiarity with the Zendo.

The reason we build screens is to escape the truth about death. The detective, it turns out, is still mourning his late wife, and that is what he has really come to the temple for.

I find the surrealist devices cheap. Bouncing back and forth between the detective context (hat, trench coat, gun) and the Zen context (shaved heads and robes) is frequently jarring. But they do serve well enough to bind the two genres, film noir and Zen story, together. Almost all the action takes place in two or three rooms, and the cast is limited to six characters (all but two of whom die or are already dead). It is respectable meditation on death and mindfulness, at least by Hollywood standards.

Finally, there is some beautiful cinematography. The orange is frequently shown burning in reverse, with the flames falling rather than rising, which is makes for a gorgeous image. Also, the soundtrack on the DVD is excellent, alternating between a Miles Davis like Noir jazz line and a lot of Eastern bamboo flute and percussion. There is a brief sex scene involving the detective and a shaven headed nun (cross legged with spines erect, if that is possible) and the high pitched flute thingy does a pretty good job of registering the climax.

It's a clever movie, with more than a little weirdness. It's one way to find out what the Dharma is about. I recommend it.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cool Struttin' with Sonny Clark


A very useful jazz site for jazz collectors is 100 Greatest Jazz Albums. The page includes detailed reviews of a lot of great jazz recordings. It has a lot of recordings listed that I haven't listened to yet, and a lot I have. One recording caught my eye: Cool Struttin' by Sonny Clark. The cover, produced at the right, was very effective: a woman's legs, calves exposed,walking down a city street. There are any number of existential angles to explore there.

The all star cast is impressive enough: Clark on piano, Art Farmer on trumpet, Jackie McLean on Alto sax, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. Of course I checked the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, and it gets four stars. That was good enough for me, and I downloaded it from iTunes. 100GJA has this:
With the single exception of "Kind of Blue", Sonny Clark's "Cool Struttin''' is almost certainly the coolest jazz album of all time. Whereas "Kind of Blue" gets its vibe from modal jazz, "Cool Struttin''' depends mainly on the blues, relatively simple and straight ahead. Calling this 'hard bop' is correct but this does not do justice to the chemistry at work here. It is one of those rare recorded moments, as on "Kind Of Blue", where everything is in a state of sublime balance, when the music making is made to seem so effortless that you could easily miss the brilliance of it all. The two albums were made within twelve months of each other.
I am not sure yet that I am that impressed with the recording. Despite the fact that the "two albums were made within twelve months of each other," this is nothing like Kind of Blue. But it is clearly very good. Art Farmer takes to the game very well, carrying on a breathy dialogue with himself on "Deep Night." McLean is as brilliant as one would expect. On that same number he keeps coming at the melody and then backing off.

Cool Struttin' is surely a fine recording. Sonny Clark was born in 1931 and died in 1963. Alcohol and heroin did him in. It is curious that heroin takes second place to rock and roll as the causes of Jazz's near demise after the fifties. God help us all.
I have loaded Deep Night onto my Drop.io site.
Take a listen, and shell out a few drachmas for Sonny Clark.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Trane Goes Off the Rails with Ascension


Over the last couple of years I have expanded my ear quite a bit. I now enjoy a lot of avant garde jazz that I would never have listened to before. I like Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, and even managed to enjoy Albert Ayler for brief periods of time. I have grown positively fond of Eric Dolphy. So I thought, maybe this is the time to try John Coltrane's Ascension. I got it and listened to it today.

It is unendurable. The word cacophony comes to mind. "Harsh and discordant sound," says Merriam Webster. You could have put the Ascension album cover next to the definition. Its harsh and discordant, and little else. Mark Twain says of Wagner's music that "it's not as bad as it sounds." That is very clever criticism. It means that a work of music sounds dreadful, but is well-thought of by the critics. Twain wasn't fooled, and I ain't neither. Ascension is as bad as it sounds. Coltrane was drilling for mother load that he thought lay just a few meters deeper. Unfortunately, all he got was an album that sounds like drilling.

You want some drilling that turns up something? Try David Murray's The Hill. I have posted "Take the Coltrane" on my drop.io account. Murray is into some weird shit, man. But everything on this challenging disc is more coherent than what is on Ascension. The Trane went off the rails.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Jazz for Halloween

Jazz is my favorite music, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. Well, maybe my second after Christmas. I am incurably fond of spooky stories. NPR's Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler, has a Halloween post. It's pretty good. It includes Wayne Shorter's Witch Hunt, from Speak No Evil, in my view, one of the best jazz albums ever produced. Shorter wrote and drew scifi and other spooky comics as a young man, and this comes out in his music. Juju, Speak No Evil, and Roots and Herbs (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) all carry a voodoo scent.

Buy I would also recommend Greg Abate. Monsters in the Night is one of my favortite jazz recordings. You can find a sample at my Drop.io site. If you like it, go to Greg's Website and order the disc.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Albert Ayler vs. Kenny Burrell


I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, and maybe it's a sign of spiritual progress and maybe it's a sign of brain damage, but I am getting to like it. There are moments when a coherent tune starts to bore me, and I long for a spooky, twisting, what the Hell was that? line to keep life interesting. I confess that I even picked up an Albert Ayler disc from eMusic.

I first encountered Ayler after reading a short piece in Rolling Stone (I think!) by Patti Smith. I bought an Ayler LP and couldn't make heads or tails of it, even when I was stoned. That may have been thirty years ago. So it was with some trepidation that I downloaded Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Apparently my ear is getting to the level of consciousness that Patti Smith reached when I was a very young man. The recording is very well made, with every tone and echo evident. But it is pure Page Four jazz: no listener could hum the tune, for there is no tune, and I doubt that the most seasoned player could accurately reproduce it after a single hearing. When you are alone with Albert Ayler, you are really alone.

I have loaded Ghosts, from Spiritual Unity, to Drop.io. Give it a listen, to see what Avant Garde is all about. Gary Peacock is on bass, and Sunny Murray on drums. Ayler carves out a cavenerous space, and fills it with bits of traditional melody, and then smears them across the board.

But then compare it with Kenny Burrell's Chitlins Con Carne, from Midnight Blue. The latter was one of the first jazz CDs I purchased, from Rhino Records in Claremont California. It was a remainder, if I remember right, so I got it cheap. Midnight Blue is one of the best recorded jazz discs I have ever heard. Every buzz and thump and exhale is on the tracks. Stanley Turrentine plays tenor, Ray Baretto plays congo (a great idea!), Major Holley plays bass, and Bill English is on drums. This is so damn good it makes your toes curl. It's pure Page Three Jazz: a theme stated, and then milked for all its worth. Burrell and Turrentine engage in a platonic dialogue. The congo is the wheels the cart runs on, while Burrell and Turrentine dance on the flatbed. The bluesy heart beats across the action.

NPR has a short piece on the recording, with a couple of tunes available (including, unfortunately, the one I have on Drop.io. See NPR Jazz Library.

It's okay to have angels hovering about the top of the picture. That's the space for avant garde. But the manger scene has to have a baby, straw, and goats. That, and all the smells and colors of real life. Ayler's job is to decorate the upper arches, Burrell is the center piece. You can sample both at by Drop.io link. If you like what you hear, buy the discs.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Another Slice of Blythe

This fine Saturday, as I cleaned the house in preparation for a dinner party, I listened to Blythe's Bytes. It is a much more traditional production than the aforebloggedupon Focus. The quartet is standard: Blythe on Alto, John Hicks on piano, Dwayne Dolphin on bass, and Cecil Brooks III on drums. The music is straight ahead jazz. There are a couple of Monk compositions, done with tender care but no surprises. The best piece is an interpretation of Coltrane's "Naima." I have uploade that last one to dropeeoh.

http://drop.io/jazznotesdp
But almost as good is the last piece: "what a friend we have in Jesus". The title of that hymn is almost jazz-like in its subtle statement.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Arthurian Alto of Arthur Blythe


I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, against my better judgment, but in obedience to my ears. I chanced upon Arthur Blythe's Focus in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, the Koran of Jazz Jihadists.

This is an astonishing recording on a number of dimensions. First, it is a superbly recorded piece. My usual method of judging a jazz recording is simple: can you hear the buzz of the bass. That doesn't work so well here, as there is no bass. But the crisp strike and echo of every instrument stands out in 3 or 4D. And the constant snort of the tuba is a statement of authenticity.

Second, it is an unusual set of instruments, beyond the absence of the bass (which is the most common instrument in jazz).
Gust William Tsilis plays bass marimba. Bob Stewart plays tuba, and Cecil Brooks III is on drums. The marimba gives the music an exotic, ethnic feel, while the tuba allows the platform to slither under Blythe's horn. This selection of sounds, with its unique sparkle and space, is itself a work of genius.

Finally, Blythe is determined to build a bridge between the avant garde approach to composition, and more traditional hard bop linguistics. The result is something that almost any jazz fan can enjoy, while teasing and titillating connoisseurs all along the range. He does a version of "C.C. Rider" that is almost traditional blues, and a deeply personal piece, "My Son Ra," that pushes the envelope around the heart. A little known Monk piece, "Children's Song" is beautiful, if not so much Monkish in its reading.

I have loaded my favorite piece from the album, "Nightcreeper." It reminds me of a Wayne Shorter composition, and not only for its spooky title. Blythe's alto creeps sinuously across the acoustic landscape, rising occasionally to strike with orchestral force. You can find it at:

http://drop.io/jazznotesdp
Enjoy, and if you do, purchase the disc. You can find it on eMusic.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

On the Edge of Spacy with Lacy



Steve Lacy (1934-2004) knew what he liked: he liked the soprano saxophone. One kind of saxophone or another has dominated modern jazz and especially jazz since bop emerged. This is not to say that the sax is the most common instrument; that would probably be the bass. But the saxophone has been the dominant instrument in establishing the feeling of modern jazz.

Most of the action goes to tenors and altos in that order, and players who favored those instruments occasionally experimented with the larger baritone or smaller soprano sax. Gerry Mulligan pops up when one thinks of a jazz man dedicated to the big horn. While John Coltrane made the smaller sax famous on My Favorite Things, Steve Lacy is about the only jazz man I can think of who played the soprano sax exclusively.

The other thing Lacy liked was the music of Thelonious Monk. A large number of his recordings were dedicated to interpretations of Monk, but it should be noted that he frequently carried Monk out of the hardbop school within which Monk stubbornly remained.

Lacy is mostly avant garde, which is to say that he made the jump from hardbop to "the new thing" along with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. This is what I call A4, or Page 4 jazz: very challenging music in terms of traditional harmony and melody. But it is precisely Lacy's dedication to Monk that provides the adventurous, somewhat skeptical, but reasonably well-prepared listener (yours truly) a gate into this new realm.

I have been listening to three Steve Lacy recordings: Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron: At the Bimhuis 1982. I like it. The first is probably the best, but the last is a close second. I am also experimenting with a new file sharing site: Drop.io (pronounced dropeeoh, if you care). So go to this link for some samples of Lacy's output:
drop.io/jazznotesdp
There you will find "Charge 'Em Blues," a cut from Cecil Taylor's classic avant garde recording, Jazz Advance. I am pretty sure it's a Taylor composition, but you will hear a lot of notes that sound positively Monkish. In addition to Taylor and Lacy, Buell Neidlinger is on bass, and Denis Charles on drums. I think any seasoned jazz fan will be able to follow it, so how do you know its A4 jazz? Well, try to hum the tune after it's finished. I think you will have to listen to this file on Apple Quicktime or iTunes.

You will also find "Four In One," from Reflections. This is a simply wonderful interpretation of the Monk tune. It strikes me that Monk's legacy is unusual in so far as he is almost always playing his own music regardless of who he plays with. But he also tends to play a small part of his corpus over and over, while neglecting a lot of really good music. Four In One is delicious. Mal Waldron plays piano,
Buell Neidlinger again on bass, and the great Elvin Jones (Coltrane's Quartet) on drums.

Mal Waldron was well suited to do Monk, and he made a perfect sparring partner for Lacy. I include an interpretation of "Round Midnight," Monk's most famous composition, and, I think, one of the most beautiful melodies in the jazz corpus. But here, I think, one can see both the greatness and the limitations of the avante garde approach. Monk's melody is here treated as something abstract, to be explored musically. The result is quite moving and beautiful, but I think that the dark, rain soaked street that the original conjures up is missing in action. But maybe that's just me.

Give Lacy a listen. One more genius to put on your list. And if you like it, do what I did: buy the music.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Top Ten Trane Tracks

NPR Music's Jazz Sampler has a nice little piece: the Cocktail Party Guide to John Coltrane.
So you're at a company shindig, talking to a group of colleagues over hors d'oeuvres, when the background music finally becomes too grating to pass by without comment. "They should just put on some real jazz," your co-worker says. "Like Coltrane."

Because he claims to like jazz, he may well be insufferable. But you aren't trying to get on his bad side, and in any event, you don't have anything against reportedly good music. So, forcing enthusiasm, you assent heartily.

Yet your strategy backfires: You've only invited further interrogation. "Really?" he asks. "What are your favorite Coltrane records?"

Well, Jazz Note SDP isn't about to let any of our readers end up flat-footed in such a situation. Here is my list of the top ten Trane recordings, about evenly divided between the famous and the not so famous. Get the music, and you will better prepared for that cocktail conversation than either Presidential candidate at tonight's debate.

Let's start with the big five:
1) A Love Supreme.
2) Giant Steps.
3) My Favorite Things
4) Live at the Village Vanguard
5) Blue Trane
A Love Supreme is frequently ranked second among all hardbop recordings, after Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Divided into four parts, it has the structure of a classical composition. It is a breathtaking piece of jazz. Giant Steps was one of those recordings that marks a genuine advance in the space open to musical composition. My Favorite Things was Coltrane's best selling recording, in part because the theme melody was familiar and in part because of the haunting sound of his Soprano Sax. The Village Vanguard represents, to this Coltrane worshiper, the peak of his genius. Everything Trane had been patiently or impatiently forging in his workshop is on display here. I think that after this, Coltrane went a bit off the rails. Blue Train is a good fifth here. It is one of the best selling recordings. You will find it at any good Barnes and Noble jazz section. But it is probably a bit overhyped. Say that, and you will sound sophisticated.

Any cocktail party Coltrane enthusiast will be familiar with those five. If you want to sound really hip, you could just say you like this or that box set. But here are five recordings that you can mention to make your point.
6) Crescent
7) Coltrane's Sound
8) Coltrane Plays the Blues
9) The Complete Africa /Brass Sessions
10) Bye Bye Blackbird
Cresent is exquisite. The great quartet (McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums) is in perfect form behind Trane, and they produce the whole Coltrane package: brilliant weaving of musical themes over a pallet of passions that reach down to the bone. "Lonnie's Lament" is one of Trane's most beautiful ballads. Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues were both recorded in October of 1960, along with My Favorite Things. You can say that Coltrane's Sound is actually the better recording, and mention that you heard it from me. The Africa/Brass Sessions put Coltrane in front of an orchestra, and you don't want to miss that. Blackbird is part of a body of recordings Trane and the quartet made in Europe. There are lots more, but tell your cocktail enthusiast that this is your favorite.

So what are the odds that you will need all this preparation for a conversation in some hotel bar? I don't know. But now you are armed, especially if you get all this music and listen to it. And besides, just listening to it is its own reward. Trane was one of the great musical geniuses of America. It there is ever to be a jazz Mount Rushmore, his face should be on it.

Here is a clip from Crescent. Enjoy it, and if you do, shell out a few dollars for the whole thing.

John Coltrane/Wise One/Crescent/@Openomy.Com
Enjoy.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

When Zoot Walks In


Learn to work the saxophone,
And I play just what I feel,

Drink Scotch Whiskey all night long,

and Die Behind the Wheel.


Those lines, from Steely Dan’s marvelous Deacon’s Blues, always remind me of Zoot Sims. Zoot didn’t die behind the wheel, but from liver cancer, which is still about the whiskey. One of the first jazz albums I purchased was Warm Tenor. It was my first encounter with a single tenor singing with a good rhythm section behind him. Jimmy Rowles played piano, George Mraz was on bass, and Mousie Alexander on drums.

On Warm Tenor, Zoot produced a soft, fuzzy voice, that felt like crushed velvet. The weave and stretch of his playing was entirely new to me. Here was the beginning of my fascination with jazz. Try this clip, from the same album:

Zoot Sims/Jitterbug Waltz/Warm Tenor @Openomy.com
If you like the clip, spend a few penny's on a Zoot Sims album. You can find a load of Zoot at eMusic.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Gorgeous Alto of Sonny Criss


The story goes that Charlie Parker said to Sonny Criss, "you get the keys to the kingdom." Or something like that. Like most of Bird's promises, I suppose, it was more than he could deliver. Criss would remain a minor figure in the hardbop pantheon, and I have only really discovered him in the last couple of days. But my sweet Lord, what a marvelous soul is on display in his recordings.

I can only recommend three of them, and I am listening to the third for the first time as I type the these words. Sonny's Dream, on Original Jazz Classics, makes the Penguin Guide's Core Collection. For good reason. Recorded in 1968, it features a set of Horace Tapscott compositions. Each one is a priceless piece of music, deeply impressionistic with the musical and political currents of the time woven in. The set included a lot of horns, a trombone and a tuba, trumpets, another alto and a tenor sax. This gives the feeling of an orchestra backing Criss at times, but it always falls back into the small combo action that is my bread and butter. Criss is brilliant and luminous. Tommy Flannagan plays piano, and I am not sure I have heard him play at this high a level elsewhere.

Two other discs that get four stars in the Penguin Guide are Portrait of Sonny Criss, and This is Criss! These are more conventional hardbop sets, each featuring Walter Davis on piano, Paul Chambers (Kind of Blue) on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. The material is popular and mostly pedestrian (Sunrise, Sunset, On a Clear Day). But it is precisely this that allows Criss to emerge as a first rate player. Listening to all the passion he squeezes out of Sunrise, Sunset, you don't for a moment imagine you are attending a Jewish wedding. All three of these discs are available at eMusic for about the price of a tall Mocha at Starbucks.

Criss was born in Memphis in 1927, and committed suicide in 1977. I gather from a few bios I found online that he was long afflicted by depression. The Penguin guide notes play up this angle, seeing his torment in his music. But it turns out that he was suffering from stomach cancer, and that more prosaic explanation is probably enough. Either way, his early death was a tragedy. Another decade of Criss recordings is one of those things we can look for in the stacks when we get to Heaven. God willing.

ps. I purchased and enjoyed a fourth Sonny Criss recording, Saturday Morning. Just right now I am thinking I like it better than the three reviewed above. Anyway, here is a cut from the disk. Enjoy, and please invest in some Criss recordings. You won't be angry at me for suggesting it.

See Sonny Criss/Angel Eyes/Saturday Morning/ on Openomy.com
This one has Barry Harris p, Leroy Vinnegar b, Lenny McBrowne d.