Sunday, April 27, 2008

Jazz Libary 2

PeppermeetsHere is a post I did on South Dakota Politics last October, shortly after I joined eMusic. The disc in question is a good example of a recording with an obvious connection to the original Miles Davis Quintet: the same rhythm section. It is recorded the year after the famous four: Cookin', Workin', Relaxin', and Steamin'. It is also universally admired.

Heroin addiction famously took out a lot of rock stars and jazzmen. It may be one of the most insidious characteristics of the stuff that, while it inevitably destroyed people, it did not prevent many jazz giants from producing extraordinary music while it was flowing through their veins. It was a common view among jazzmen (and later, rock musicians) that mind altering drugs actually promoted genius. I have contempt for that idea, because I am sure that it killed a lot of beautiful minds. But I confess that I am not sure it was always wrong. I think it is silly to believe that heroin or LSD opened up any new pathways in the brain. Beethoven didn't need LSD. But heroin may have kept at bay certain personal demons that otherwise would have put a stop to the music. Genius often goes hand in hand with a dysfunctional personality, and that is the setting for tragedy.

One of the epochal recordings in jazz is Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, which I recently acquired from EMusic. Pepper was a piece of work: brilliant alto player, heroin addict, convict. His wife arranged the gig for him, but didn't tell him until just before it happened for fear he would get cold feet and run off. He hadn't played for six months when he shot up with smack, grabbed a horn held together with bandaids, and went into the studio with what might be the greatest rhythm section in the history of jazz: Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on base, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. That was the same trio that laid the foundation for Miles Davis' first quintet (with Coltrane).

The music is indescribably delicious, so I won't try to describe it. Heroin did eventually kill Art Pepper, but it it didn't kill his genius, at least on this occasion. High as a kite, he worked his saxophone with a brilliance that precious few gods or human beings could match. I am not sure there is any moral to this story. It is a clue to how deep and uncharted the human soul is that so much of it could be submerged beneath the orgasm of heroin, and yet room is left for the saxophone. Saved

Here is sample from the disc: Star Eyes.

Jazz artists you probably don't know

When Ken Blanchard invited me to contribute to this blog, I wasn't sure how I could best add to his expertise of hard-bop jazz and his fine insightful writing. After thinking hard about how I could add something of interest and value, it came to me. As host of a jazz radio program and podcast In The Groove, Jazz and Beyond, I am in a unique position of receiving hundreds of CD submissions from little known independent jazz artists. Believe me, these CD's can run the gamut from amateurish to some really fine creative musicians and composers. My contribution to SDP Jazz Notes will be to bring you the best of these indie-jazz musicians and composers.

In the changing landscape of the record industry, major labels no longer will take risks as they had in the past. They have completely forsaken the jazz genre and will only sign performers that fit the proven formula of popular, gimmicky, sexy acts that will bring a sure return on their investment. A major record company will no longer promote a creative musical art form that has a limited appeal to a more mature discriminating audience. In this environment will we ever see a new innovative talent sell millions of records, like in the past with Billy Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis? In my opinion those days are behind us.

The best of new post-modern jazz artists that push the genre in new directions can only be heard on college, community and public radio stations. It can be heard live in hip jazz clubs in cities like New York and Chicago or summer jazz festivals. I try to provide a forum for these artist on my radio show and podcast In the Groove Jazz and Beyond. My latest show featured several such jazz-men, and I would like to introduce three of them here.

Albert Rivera from Brooklyn NY is a hard-driving tenor sax player and composer who as member of an inner-city high school band won a scholarship to the Litchfield CT band camp that opened his eyes to the world of jazz, from which he has studied since. Recently he has played the NY city jazz club circuit and is gaining great notoriety. His fine CD is titled Re-introduction.

Luques (bass) and Zaccai (piano) Curtis grew up in the Hartford, Connecticut area where at very early ages were being noticed by jazz musicians in CT and NYC. They have performed with jazz greats such as Gary Burton, Jerry Gonzalas and the Fort Apache Band, Christian Scott, and many others. Their latest project, Insight, led by pianist Zaccai has a distinct Latin flavor yet swings with its hard-bop influence. The CD is A Genisis.

Mike DiRubbo was born and raised in New Haven Connecticut and studied music at the Hartt School of Music under the tutelage of jazz great Jackie McLean. Listening to DiRubbo on alto sax, there is no doubt of the masters heavy influence on his student. Mike DiRubbo's latest CD, New York Accent, Live at Kitano's also features the great piano playing of Harold Mabern.

You can hear these great artists and some others on my recent podcast Hartford-New York City Connection. If you dig what you hear, I urge you to purchase their music. Show these cats your support. It's really hard to make a living in jazz these days and the support for the music and the musicians is needed for jazz to survive.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Shelly Manne at the Black Hawk

A lot of jazz fans and especially jazz critics tend to believe that jazz is only authentic when it is played before a live audience. I suppose that rules out zombies. Some will go so far as to say that you only really hear jazz when you can see the band, up close in a small club. Next in the scale of authenticity is a live date recorded. When studio sessions are considered a great deal of emphasis is placed on the session, a set of tunes recorded on the same day. All this is a bit silly: many or most of the best jazz recordings are done in studio, perhaps over a number of days, and I am betting that few club audiences witness anything as wonderful as Kind of Blue. But there is this substantive point underlying this conceit: that any combo has to play together. Jazz can't be authentic if it is recorded in the way that many other genres are: players coming into the studio at different times to lay down their tracks. A jazz tune must be a conversation, with each of the players reacting to each other.

Two jazz clubs stand out in the history of bop for the major recordings that were made there: the Village Vanguard in New York, and the Black Hawk in San Francisco. Bill Evans recorded his magnum opus at the former, and John Coltrane's Live at the Village Vanguard ranks as one of his five most important recordings. The Vanguard is still in operation.

The Black Hawk is but a memory, but I have recently been listening to some of the great music recorded there. Shelly Manne, one of the very best West Coast jazzmen, recorded a series of albums there in 1959. All 5 CDs are available at eMusic. Manne was a drummer, and drummers make good leaders for the same reason that catchers do in baseball: they can see the whole field. Here is the Wikipedia entry:

Shelly Manne's Quintet, At the Blackhawk, Vol. 1 - 4, was recorded extensively at San Francisco's Black Hawk club for three nights in 1959, four live albums recorded, now documented on five CDs. With trumpeter Joe Gordon, tenor saxophonist Richie Kamuca, pianist Victor Feldman, and bassist Monty Budwig was certainly capable of playing high-quality bebop. Highlights include "Step Lightly," "What's New," "Vamp's Blues"). These lengthy performances "Vamp's Blues" is over 19 minutes long. The third volume adds a long version of "Whisper Not" to the original rendition, Cole Porter's "I Am in Love" and the spontaneous 18-minute "Black Hawk Blues." As with the first three sets, the fourth volume adds an alternate take (of "Cabu") to the original program ("Cabu," "Just Squeeze Me," "Nightingale," and a full-length version of their theme, "A Gem from Tiffany"). The lengthy solos are consistently excellent, making this entire series recommended to straight-ahead jazz fans.

This is swinging jazz at its best, energetic and humorous, but steady. I am in the market for the four CD Miles Davis at the Black Hawk, with Hank Mobley on tenor sax (Coltrane's replacement), Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums.

I couldn't find any video clips from the Black Hawk, buy here is a good one of Shelly Man behind a sax, trumpet, piano, and bass.

Here is a sample from the Black Hawk recordings: Step Lightly.

If you like the sample, go to eMusic or Amazon, and purchase the music.

Monday, April 21, 2008

My Funny Valentine: 1956 and 1964

I am currently experimenting with ways to make some of the music I discuss available through this website. This will obviously make it easier for readers to sample the music and decide what discs they want to buy.

The following links includes two versions of the same song, My Funny Valentine. They should allow you to directly listen to the music via iTunes or some other music program.

Miles Davis Quintet/Cookin'/My Funny Valentine 1956

Miles Davis/My Funny Valentine/My Funny Valentine 1964

The first version is recorded in 1956, and it is found on Cookin', the disc recorded by the first great Miles Davis Quintet. Miles is on trumpet, John Coltrane on tenor sax, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums.

The second version is recorded eight years later, at the Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall. It is included on My Funny Valentine: Miles Davis In Concert. The second quintet includes George Coleman on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums.

Both versions are magnificent, and the differences between them are good illustrations of the differences between the two quintets. I heard an interview with Herbie Hancock just the other day, and told this story on Miles. When Hancock found hims solos getting a little stale, Miles told him: don't play the butter notes. Hancock does his best Miles imitation on the quote. Hancock had no idea at first what Miles meant. Miles apparently gave most of instructions to the band in cryptic metaphors. But Hancock figured it out: the butter notes were the notes mostly clearly identified with a cord. Well, in the second version of MFV, there are a lot fewer butter notes, but the soul of the song shines out more clearly for that.

Give it a listen, and let me know what you think.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Something Borrowed, Something Blue

I decided I wanted to put aside my Bose headphones, great though the sound was. The iPod is clearly meant to be a vehicle for delivering sound to Jblradmicblkear buds. But there are three problems with every version of headphones I have tried: one is that I just don't think they are good for my hearing. There is an argument to the contrary, in the case of inner-ear models: they exclude all other noise so you can turn the volume down. I am not convinced. Second, and this might be the major complaint, they are very isolating. Finally, I thing that music sounds more genuine when it is bouncing off of walls and such.

So I bought a JBL radial micro iPod dock. The gosh darned thing is the size of a small wall clock and delivers marvelous sound. It isn't dirt cheap, but it's half the price of the Bose alternative that Target was selling. And now I can listen to jazz while I talk to other persons in the kitchen.

One of the first things I listened to on the JBL Radial was part one of the 2007 Retrospective on In The Groove: Jazz and Beyond. I have frequently complained about hero worship among jazz fans. But as I have confessed, I am as guilty of it as anyone. Most of my Jazz Notes have been about the celestials who were big on the scene when I was born. Ken Laster's great radio show helps somewhat to correct this tendency, and bring us the jazz that is being created in this millennium. One very fine piece on the recent show was New York Dream, by the Mike Di Rubbo Quartet. It features a very strong melody that will be easily accessible to someone who is new to jazz, combined with all the compositional genius that makes authentic jazz so much more interesting to me than most other genres. In fact, I had already purchased the CD, NY Accent: Live at the Kitano, after hearing several cuts on earlier on ITG podcasts.

Note to Record Companies: Podcasts like Ken Laster's are not stealing your music. They are selling it for you, free of charge!

Another CD I bought after hearing it on ITG was Eric Alexander's Temple of Olympic Zeus. Another sax man, his playing is so energetic and muscular, I kept picking the jewel case back up as I listened to see just how closely he was related to Jove.

Joe_lovano_joyous_encounter_2005773I have also been listening to is Joe Lovano. I can highly recommend two of his CD's: Joyous Encounter (2005), and From the Soul (1991). The latter was listed as part of the Core Collection in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, but it is by far the more challenging of the two.

Lovano's playing is gorgeous. A few weeks ago I had Joyous Encounter
playing on my office computer. In the curved half circle of our new offices, music floats out of rooms and down the hall without drifting back into other rooms. But no fewer than three colleagues walked into my room to ask what that beautiful music was.

Empyrean_isles Finally, let me recommend a couple of pieces by a certified member of the jazz pantheon. The ITG Retrospective includes a piece from the new Herbie Hancock/Joni Mitchell collaboration: River: the Joni Letters. I have always loved Joni Mitchell's jazz songs. River is one of those rare Christmas songs that is sad and beautiful because of it. Hancock's most famous disc is probably Maiden Voyage (1964). It is certainly part of the bedrock of any jazz collection. But just as good is Empyrean Isles, recorded at the same time with the same band minus George Coleman on tenor sax. I picked it up in a Borders in Springfield, Missouri, just after Christmas. Good as each is on its own, together they make up an epic moment in the history of America's music.

The Pub Crawl Method of Jazz Collecting

Milesdavisquintet2 A student of mine who is a talented musician recently asked me to recommend some jazz artists. He was familiar with names like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans, and he had heard Kind of Blue. But he had never heard of Wayne Shorter or Art Pepper. This got me thinking. I listened to and loved jazz for a long time before I had any idea how to buy jazz recordings. As a result, I walked into a jazz record store only a few years ago and came away with three really pedestrian cds, leaving behind some of the most marvelous music ever recorded. Now I know better, and this new website, along with all my Jazz Note posts, is all about that.

My strategy for building a jazz collection is what I like to call the "pub crawl" method. Focus on a single recording or set of recordings, one you like but preferably one that is also recognized to be fundamental to the history of the music, and then use that as a point of orientation. I began with the four recordings by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956: Workin', Cookin', Relaxin', and Steamin'. Each one is brilliant, and together they give you a good foothold in the most important period of jazz.

Where do you go from there? Well, the Miles Davis Quintet later became a sextet, with the addition of Cannonball Adderley. You could look into that. Then there is the second great quintet in the sixties, with Wayne Shorter replacing Coltrane, and Herbie Hancock on piano. Another avenue along with to crawl is to follow the work of the various members of the original quintet in the same period. Coltrane does a lot of brilliant work on his own, and the rhythm section consisting of Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums, produces its own body of work. Then do the same with the sextet and the second quintet.

The reason for crawling rather than jumping about is that it allows you to build a coherent map of the music, and thus you can intelligently compare different recordings. It will also allow you to identify periods in each artist's career that you want to avoid. During the late sixties and seventies, a lot of brilliant jazz men recorded some atrocious stuff, as most will readily admit. But that doesn't mean you can't pick more than one artist or combo to use as points of orientation. As you feel your way along, you will find a number of great recordings, jazz geniuses, and spectacular groups to collect and explore.

Jazz is one of America's great contributions to world culture. Even the French like it! Today it is available to almost anyone who takes an interest in what is brilliant and beautiful.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Jazz Bible

InthegrooveI have frequently mentioned my friend Ken Laster, DJ at WHUS in Storrs, Connecticut, and host of my favorite radio show/podcast, In The Groove: Jazz & Beyond. I listened to Ken's holiday post on the way back from Arkansas, just after Christmas. I was delighted to hear him mention my post 10 Best Jazz CDs for Christmas. Ken played a cut from Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, which was number 4 on my list. He also kindly gave SDP a plug. I was very happy to bring that album to his attention, as it is Shorter's best, and Shorter is my favorite jazz man.

In an e-mail note, Ken had some very kind words to say about my post on Dicken's Christmas Carol. He is always cautious to point out that my politics are not his politics. That hasn't stopped him from enjoying my blog posts, or me from enjoying his wonderful podcasts. In fact, the difference in our political orientation makes the friendship all the more fun, in my view. Let me return all the many favors he has sent my way. He is an excellent DJ and a generous human being. I think his program is the very best jazz site on the web, and it is a great service to the music we love. I have purchased many jazz albums after hearing samples on his show, so the artists and record companies should rejoice at Ken's work. If you like jazz or you are curious, go to the link above and you will find an treasure trove of this marvelous music.

Penguineguide Ken also turned me onto eMusic, a legal download service where you can get about 7 or 8 albums of classic jazz for the price of one each month. But if you are trying to build a solid jazz library, what do you buy? That leads me to one of my Christmas presents this year, The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, by Richard Cook and Brian Morton. This book packs over 14,000 reviews of jazz on compact disk into 15,000 pages. It is alphabetical by artist (Juhani Aaltonen to Mark Zubek), with an index if you get the 8th edition. Each recording gets one to four stars, but readers are discouraged from investing in anything with less than three. It immediately passed the acid test: most of the jazz discs I already own got four. Even more useful was the "core collection" designation given to about two hundred discs. Buy only these, and you will have a very respectable collection of jazz. I was somewhat tickled to see that the authors stuck a small crown next to some of the four star entries. These indicate their personal favorites.

One of the strengths of jazz recording is precisely the fact that jazz artists produce a remarkable number of albums. Another is that jazz encompasses so wide a range of musical styles. But those strengths are also weaknesses. A lot of jazz albums are not well made, even when they feature the stars you think you should be able to depend on. The authors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz have more generous tastes than mine, but they provide a marauder's map to the vast and innumerable corridors of America's great music. Listen to In The Groove, and get a copy of The Penguin Guide. You will be a jazz nerd like me in no time.

ps. Anyone interested in eMusic should send me a note at my Gmail address. I'll get you set up. Perhaps you should know that there is something in it for me.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Box Set Problematic

Hancockbluenote_2If you are a jazz collector, you are confronted with a problematic over box sets. Last summer I purchased John Coltrane: Fearless Leader, a collection of all the sets Trane recorded as leader in 1957-58. This kind of collection looks irresistible to a jazz fan, at least until he or she buys it. In the first place, you get a lot of music for your dollar. Fearless Leader included about a dozen Coltrane albums that I don't have to look for anymore and only one that I already had. Second, a box set typically includes a lot of previously unreleased material: alternate takes, etc. Third, it documents a period of time in a distinguished career and fourth,and most important of all, the material in jazz box sets is usually arranged by recording session. A single recording session is a lot like a single malt scotch: it is not necessarily better, but it does have its own unique character and allows the connoisseur to taste that.

On the other hand, box sets tend to gather dust on the shelf and remain unplayed on the iPod. Because the box is such a big lump of material, it's hard to remember what you listened to last. I solved the problem with Fearless Leader by replacing the disc 1, disc 2 album identification with recording session info., and tagging each song with the album title it was released on. That has made it easier to slowly listen my way through the material. But that was a lot of work, and the work is maintained only on my home desk top and my iPod.

I was recently tempted by two more box sets. One of them was Coltrane's European Tours. This represents the classic quartet: McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Elvin Jones on drums. But I had to ask myself: do I really need four versions of Naima? It is a great composition, one of the best standards in jazz. But how many live versions is enough? I passed, and picked out three of the individual albums on EMusic: Bye, Bye, Blackbird and The Paris Concert (62), and Afro Blue Impressions (63). All three are excellent examples of the quartet in this period, but the last is superb and ranks with almost anything Trane put out. Naima is there, along with My Favorite Things. The polish of each performance and the interplay between the four makes it look like they wanted this to be their legacy.

But I did acquire Herbie Hancock's Complete Blue Note Sixties Sessions. This is a priceless collection, including seven complete albums. Two of them, Maiden Voyage and Empyrean Isles, I already had, but most of the rest of the material was to die for. Taken as a whole, it documents a jazz master and brilliant composer coming into his own. The above mentioned albums are essential items in any core jazz collection. Each composition has the colors of the sea-voyage theme woven into its fabric, and one can almost smell the salt air.

The collection is also interesting for including Inventions and Dimensions, a very experimental work that, well, doesn't quite work out. Hancock gave his side men nothing more than time signatures and some general indications to go on. That's cutting edge! As Mark Twain said of Wagner's music, "it's not as bad as it sounds." The sixties would be the decade when a lot of jazz giants succumbed to the general disintegration of the culture. This material is worth listening to at least once. Everything else on the Blue Note box is worth listening to over and over. Hancock's work for Blue Note in the early sixties is one more reason any American has to be proud of her country.

SDP Jazz Note: Thelonious Monk & Johnny Griffin

MonkstampIf Thelonious Monk dropped a penny into a coffee can, you could tell by the sound it made that it was Monk that dropped it. Or at least that it was someone who was hanging around Monk. When Monk played the piano, every note seemed slightly or more than slightly odd. A sax or a trumpet playing behind him takes on the same quality. In a Monk composition, when you hear it for the first time, every change seems all wrong. Each melodic line seems to start in the wrong place and end too soon or too late. It seems like you have entered a twilight zone where the geometry is non-Euclidean and the flavors are all new. And yet, if you keep listening, you notice that the echoes in the room are pure juke joint piano, and every thread in the musical tapestry spools back into the traditions of African-American music. This explains why those with a seasoned ear for jazz often think that Monk's music was perfect, while those hearing it for the first time wonder if he could play the piano at all.

It is proof enough of his genius that jazz musicians have found his compositions to be persistently fascinating. "Round Midnight," and "Straight, No Chaser" are among the most frequently covered standards. It is true that a lot of jazz men have been perplexed by his work, especially when they were working with him. But there has been a lot of good pudding.

MonkinactionOne place to start is Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk. The title is deceptive. Blakey's Jazz Messengers wasn't a combo, it was a jazz school. One brilliant jazzman after another drifted in and out, while Blakey's drum rhythm kept up the institution. This disc represents Monk 101. Five of the six pieces are Monk standards. One is a Johnny Griffin composition. Griffin is one of the lesser immortals in the jazz pantheon. But he is one of my favorites. He played tenor sax on this session.

Griffin's tenor can also be heard on two lesser known albums recorded live at the Five Spot Cafe. Misterioso, and Thelonious Monk in Action, document these performances. Both are available for a handful of quarters at eMusic. Griffin's ability to enter and master Monk's logic is awesome. This is what jazz is all about: the marriage of intelligence and passion in the realm of melody.

Welcome to Jazz Note SDP

Welcome to Jazz Note SDP! This blog is devoted to critical commentary on Jazz. For several years now I have been blogging at South Dakota Politics, along with a group of colleagues. You can also find my political posts at the ABC affiliate Keloland. That blog is, as you might guess, devoted primarily to political issues, both local and national. I highly recommend it. But we at SDP also post occasionally on cultural topics: movies and music.

Some time ago I began a regular feature on Jazz: SDP Jazz Note. I am a major jazz nerd with a strong preference for hard bop, and especially for the body of music produced between the early fifties and the mid-sixties. I have been in the business of building a competent jazz library, and those posts mostly reflect that project. I flatter myself that my jazz posts may be of interest to other jazz fans, and this blog is an attempt to make them more available.

If you like what you read here, please let me know. Comments on individual posts will also be welcome. I will gradually post all of my previous jazz notes here, and I will make every attempt to bring my readers' attention to events in the contemporary jazz scene.