Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Jazz Library 5: A Tale of Two Quintets

As I have described how I began building a jazz library in a series of four posts, you might say that the backbone of that library consists of eight albums in two bunches:

The First Great Miles Davis Quintet (with John Coltrane ts, Red Garland p, Paul Chambers b, and Philly Joe Jones d). All four were recorded in 1956:
  1. Workin'
  2. Steamin'
  3. Relaxin'
  4. Cookin'
The Second Great Miles Davis Quintet (with Wayne Shorter ts, Herbie Hancock p, Ron Carter b, Tony Williams d). The discs are:
  1. ESP (65)
  2. Miles Smiles (66)
  3. Sorcerer(67)
  4. Nefertiti (67)
This body of work pretty much defines the period of jazz that I am most interested in, and displays both the awesome strengths and tragic weaknesses of what was happening to jazz. A lot of books can be written, and I'm sure many have, on what was special about this extended decade. I will mention just one here: Miles and other jazzmen thought of themselves differently than had all or almost all earlier jazzmen.

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington thought of themselves as entertainers. They aspired to immortal greatness, and may have recognized that they achieved it. But they measured their success by how much they pleased their audiences. Miles thought of himself as an artist. An artist recognizes a standard of perfection that is independent of audience approval. The artist may feel some responsibility connecting with the audience, and he surely may feel the necessity of doing so. But he may also feel that his greatest responsibility is to the art, and if the audience is too dense to recognize this, well that's their problem.

When music becomes art, it sometimes works very well. It may be only over time that the greatness of a body of works is recognized. But of course there is always the danger that something will be mistaken by the artist for perfect beauty when it is merely an idiosyncratic affection.

A good way to see what is going on between the mid-fifties and late sixties is to compare the following two recordings, which are ostensibly the same composition: Oleo. But you almost have to look at the titles to know that. Here's the early one:

Miles Davis/Oleo/Relaxin'/1956

Here is a version recorded live eleven years later by the second quintet, at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. It is found on the seven disc box set, and this is one box well worth owning.

Miles Davis/Oleo/The Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel/1965.

I think you will agree that the difference between the two is extraordinary. Which is better? I am content to have both, but I do think that the latter version presents unique problems for maintaining a musical tradition. Almost anyone who doesn't have a tin ear can appreciate the 56 version. The latter is opaque to most people who do not listen to a lot of jazz. But more about accessibility later.


Friday, May 23, 2008

Booker Ervin

The single cheapest way to build or build up a good jazz library is to join eMusic. They offer a subscription service, with so many downloads per month. The cheapest deal is about 30 downloads a month for about $10. Any interested reader need only send me an e-mail at blanchsdp@gmail.com, and I will get you started.

The e-music catalog is simply marvelous. It includes large chunks of the celebrated jazz masters like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and just about everyone else. You can also get some of the great boxed sets and, best of all, you can pick and chose which numbers to download. Their catalog is nowhere near complete, but if you got all your jazz from this one source you could still put together a very respectable collection.

For a good example, while I was strolling through the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings this evening, I chanced upon the entry for Booker Ervin (1930-70). Ervin was a trombone player who taught himself to play the tenor sax. EMusic had a good set of his recordings, including a 1961 album That's It! I listened to a few samples, and then downloaded it.

Ervin's tenor sounds more like Coltrane than anyone else except Coltrane. The hard-driving Texas sound behind him, blusey and muscular, is foot stompin' good from start to finish. His tenor is compelling.

Here is a sample from That's It!
BookerErvin/That's It!/Speak Low/1961
Speak Low is one of my favorite standards. I first heard it on a Bill Evans album. Enjoy.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Dean of Jazz

Before I get rolling with my brief post about Phil Schaap, I should introduce myself to those who may not know me. I'm Jason Heppler, a graduate student in history at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and somewhat of a newcomer to jazz. Thanks to discussions with Ken Blanchard and my introduction to programs like Ken Laster's In the Groove, I've been able to expand my understanding and explore various features of jazz. Like Blanchard, my preferences cluster around the 1950s and 1960s, and I must admit that I've been neglecting the big band types, such as Duke Ellington. I also have yet to significantly branch into more recent artists and avant-garde music. Although he isn't usually included among the top classics in hard bop, I particularly find Lee Morgan exuding genius. I remain an outside observer: although I played in school band from fifth grade to the end of high school and learned four different instruments during that period of my life, I never joined a jazz ensemble (sometimes to my regret). When I'm not engulfed in academic projects, I also spend my days trying to build a respectable jazz library. Now on to my post that appears at SDP...

A question that's often raised when you tell people you're studying history is, "what can you do with a history degree?" For a Columbia University history major, class of 1973, the answer was to be passionately informed about jazz. Phil Schaap hosts "Bird Flight" on Columbia University's radio show WKRC and was profiled by the New Yorker this week, a tribute to his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz and unusual stories about many of jazz's greatest players. It's a fun read and an interesting reflection on memory and forgetting, so be sure to check it out.

[cross posted at SDP]

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Miguel Zenon - Awake

This recording is a masterpiece of modern jazz composition. One that needs to be listened to and absorbed in its entirety, not one track at a time. It is more like a classical suite with the theme "Awakening" that begins the CD with a string quartet then repeated midway through with a free blowing brass ensemble and ending once again as a solo statement on alto sax. Flowing in between is some of the most original post modern jazz comps and arranging that I have heard in years. Miguel Zenon is a Puerto Rican native who studied alto saxophone classically in his homeland, but seriously with jazz at Berklee School of Music. Those elements of his latin roots, considerable chops on alto sax and jazz improvisation come together in his latest release Awake. Surrounded by his excellent quartet featuring Luis Pedromo on piano, Henry Cole on drums, and Hans Glawischnig on bass, these cats stretch the boundaries of modern jazz hard-bop, often venturing into free-form improv but always remaining close to the theme and meaning of these complex compositions. Zenon's brilliant use of the string quartet is minimal and well placed on the opening theme and in a beautiful composition 'Lamamilla'.

Miguel Zenón - Awake
You can hear samples in iTunes at the above link, or the track 'ulysses in slow motion' on this podcast episode of my jazz radio show In the Groove, Jazz and Beyond at the 45:30 mark into the show.

Learn more about Miguel Zenon's at his web site.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Trane's Best Seller

Coltranefavorite Jazz fans would probably rank A Love Supreme, Giant Steps, and Live At the Village Vanguard, as John Coltrane's most important albums. Each one is certainly a masterpiece. But his greatest commercial success was My Favorite Things, which featured a jazz interpretation of the Sound of Music hit, and sold like hot cakes. Backing him up were McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums. MFT is a compelling disc. I put it on a couple of nights ago, when I was preoccupied by a scholarly concern. The music made me forget the paper I have due in about six days.

I just got Coltrane's Sound from Barnes & Noble. It was recorded at the same time as MFT, but is a little more restrained and romantic. I have only listened to it once, but I would be hard put to say that it ranks second to the more popular album. It does have one of the worst examples of cover art in the history of jazz. Trane's face is depicted in smears of paint. It looks like he is melting. According to lore, he was distressed by it.

You can hear and watch the Quartet play My Favorite Things at DailyMotion. The venue is Sudwestfunk TV Studio, Baden-Baden, West Germany, November 24, 1961. Eric Dolphy joins in. I am not sure that Dolphy was not a bad influence on Coltrane. He was wild at heart, and a lot of his music is incomprehensible to me. But in this set they stick very close to the melody. Watching the light reflect off of Trane's cheeks is worth the ticket.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Jazz Library 4: The Second Great Miles Davis Quintet

I have been roughly describing how I began collecting jazz discs. This method was no great feat of genius on my part, but I wish that I had figured it out a lot earlier. I began with a core of discs that I really liked, and that were considered classics (the 1956 Miles Davis discs: Cookin', Workin', Relaxin', and Steamin'). I already had some Miles Davis and John Coltrane discs, so I hunted up some work by the rhythm section at about the same time: Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones. That is what we might call "lateral crawling."

Lately I have adding Miles Davis discs to my collection, to fill out the periods of his work that I am interested in. This of course means skipping around in time, which I will call "linear crawling." I posted earlier about two treatments of "My Funny Valentine," in 1956 and 1964.

In September of 1964 Wayne Shorter joined Miles in Berlin, and the second great quintet was together. This arrangement, two horns and a rhythm section, was the classic hard bop format. Shorter is my personal favorite jazzman. His playing on the tenor sax has not the astounding speed of Coltrane, nor for the most part did he experiment as widely. For both those reasons, he has never earned the fame he deserves. And he richly deserves it, for he possessed one of the most beautiful musical minds in the classic hard bop period. He was especially good at coming up with simple but gorgeous elements of melody that the band could build on. He also had a deeply spooky streak in almost all his compositions. It is no wonder that Miles found him supremely useful.

With Herbie Hancock on piano, you now had three authentic geniuses on the quintet. Ron Carter filled out the group on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Here is a sample from one of the Quintet's discs, the best in my opinion: ESP.

Miles Davis/ESP/Iris

The tune is Iris, a Shorter composition recorded at the Columbia Studios in 1965. Shorter begins by laying out the melody, with a sweet and smoky texture. Miles then takes it apart, sharpening all the angles. Shorter replies with his second solo, and then Hancock comes in. Each solo is a little more subtle than the last. Finally Shorter comes back in to restore the original, more richly adorned now.

If you like this piece, do us all a favor and buy the disc. All of it is good.


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Red Garland Quintet

Redgarlandhighpressure Building a jazz library is a challenge because so many different kinds of music are published under that genre title. A lot of stuff gets in that doesn't belong there, and rare is the jazz fan whose tastes are wide enough to encompass everything that does. I make a lot of use of jazz guides, such as the "building a jazz library" articles at All About Jazz. I have recently discovered an invaluable resource: the Jazz Discography Project. This is a very thorough catalog of recordings by major jazz artists listing songs, albums, session dates and recording locations. It is the single most useful on line jazz page that I have found.

I blogged earlier about the four great recordings made by the Miles Davis Quintet in 1956. Using the Jazz Discography, I discovered a similar session recorded in November and December of 1957 by The Red Garland Quintet. Garland played piano for Davis's Quintet, and he brought John Coltrane along with him. Donald Bird replaced Davis on trumpet, with George Joyner on bass, and Art Taylor on drums. It is not really a "quintet" in so far as the group did not travel and do live shows like the Miles Davis Quintet. But the session recorded by Rudy Van Gelder in Hackensack, New Jersey, spawned three albums: All Morning Long, Soul Junction, and High Pressure.

I have listened to the first two and they are marvelous. They sit quite comfortably next to the Davis Quintet's Cookin' and Workin' on my CD shelf, with the same bluesy energy and deep heart. High pressure was a little harder to reel in. Barnes and Noble ran out, but I await a copy from some outfit in the Smoky Mountains, by way of Amazon. This was a delicious find for a certified jazz nerd. I at least had never heard of this session, and I am guess that a lot of folks with the Miles Davis Quintet on their iPods haven't heard it either. If nothing else, this is a bit of undiscovered Coltrane, whose genius is on full display as a sideman. Check it out.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

David Newquist on Dizzy Gillespie

A colleague of mine posted this on his blog over the weekend. It is an excellent homage to some great jazz trumpet players.

Somewhere there's democracy; how high the moon
Posted by: David Newquist - 05/04/2008 10:46 AM (Politics)

Dizzy Gillespie

Ken Blanchard offered some welcoming words at my return to blogging, and I appreciate them. He noted our shared love of jazz, and noted that he has instituted a web log on jazz, for which I heartily commend him and hope to enjoy the exchange of information on America's original art form.

Ken notes my fondness for the Prez, Lester Young, one of the great innovators on tenor sax, and mentions him as a special favorite of mine. Actually, there are few jazz musicians who aren't special favorites. He also mentions Miles Davis.

If I hold special favor toward any jazz musicians, it is trumpet players. I was/am one. If my fingers were working, I might still put on a CD and play a few choruses with one of the masters--for my ears only, however.

Miles Davis was a lyric minimalist whose renditions are still the most listened to classics among jazz lovers. But I guess the figure for whom I have special reverence is Dizzy Gillespie. As a young man, I decided not to pursue the trumpet as a career because he made me realize there was talent out there I could never approach. As an aspiring trumpet player, I realized there existed virtuosity and talent I could not approach. Dizzy was by no means the only musician to inspire some intense self-assessment of my own prospects, but he broke the limits that the instrument was presumed to possess. He did things with the trumpet that had b een considered musically impossible. He was also an exceptionally witty and funny man, an entertainment genius, and he composed some of most enduring jazz classics.

He was the epitome of what I learned was a fundamental of playing jazz. That fundamental was explained at a college jazz club meeting when I was an undergraduate which featured a former member of a band led by the legendary cornetist Bix Beiderbecke . A student said he had heard of a musical confrontation between Bix and Louis Armstrong. The old banjo player said if the two ever appeared together, it wouldn't be for the purpose of trying to cut each other down; it would be to see how good they could play together to make music. They might challenge each other to higher levels of creativity, but they wouldn't try to compete for superiority. If you think jazz is a contest, you don't understand it, he said. Jazz is a matter of musical contribution, not seeing who is better than someone else.

Over the years, I have seen and heard Dizzy with many groups, and while his solos were always spectacular, so was his effort to support the ensemble and other soloists to reach for musical heights. The last time I saw him he was touring with the Northern Illinois University jazz band. He set the standard, he joined the ensemble in a way that moved it to swinging discipline, he prodded the young musicians to devote themselves to the creation of music, not the display of their egos. Musicians of talent do have a struggle with not letting their egos get in the way of the music. Dizzy was constantly busy nudging the brass section with his trumpet, spurring the reeds with his voice, amplifying the rhythm section with a multitude of percussion instruments he found in Africa and South America. He worked constantly to intensify the jazz experience.

A story that demonstrates the "jazz ethic" concerns a concert that Dizzy and other masters of hard Bop organized to help a beleaguered Charlie Parker. Parker had been institutionalized for his addictions. He had hocked his alto sax. Gillespie and others got his instrument out of pawn and organized and promoted a huge concert in Canada that drew fans from all of North America.
Parker played some of his most brilliant music that night. But there was Dizzy behind it all giving Parker all the support and musical challenge possible, and prodding the other musicians to do likewise. It was a legendary moment in music and re-established Parker as one of the most formidable players of jazz.

Behind that concert was the element not well understood about jazz and the black experience which is part of the art form. It has to do with working in concert to achieve those things that benefit everybody. It is a music of freedom and democracy. No one played it better than Dizzy.

* * *

Blanchard's Comment:

I have to confess that I don't listen a lot to the giants of that first bop generation: Gillespie and Charlie Parker stand out. I did however acquire Lester Young's The Complete Aladdin Sessions. There is no doubting the Prez or his genius from what came out of that bottle. I would also note that Gillespie wrote one of my very favorite standards, "A Night in Tunisia." Recently I heard someone somewhere describe how Dizzy wrote the song on the bottom of a trash can. There is jazz poetry in that.

You can watch and listen to a clip of Dizzy performing "A Night in Tunisia" at Daily Motion.


Jazz Library 3

Davisquintetwinterineurope196771394In recent posts I have been describing how I began building a more or less coherent jazz library. I began with the first Miles Davis Quintet, and jumped ahead a bit to just before the second great quintet was formed. Below is an older post from SDP on that second great combo.

Here is a nice clip from 1967, featuring Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. The venue is in Stockholm. The Quintet is interpreting Thelonious Monk's Round Midnight. But it is only during Miles' opening solo that you can detect that lovely melody, and even then he plays so coyly around it that, well, you have to know what you are supposed to be hearing. All of the solos are elegant and interesting, but I am not sure that this really has much to do with Round Midnight.

I think that hard bop jazz, between the mid fifties and mid sixties, was clearly the center of genius in twentieth century music. This clip represents the end of that fertile period. Still, it's wonderful to watch my hero, Wayne Shorter, doing what Miles told him to do. Jazz more or less died when the Beatles came on the scene, and only came back to life later. This clip shows us how much genius and how much confusion was present just before the eclipse.