Sunday, June 29, 2008

John Coltrane Profiles

One of the finest podcasts that a jazz lover (or jazz student) could ever subscribe to or listen to is NPR's Jazz Profiles. A wealth of knowledge about some of the world's greatest jazz artists are contained within. What is special about Jazz Profiles is that you hear about the music from the artists themselves and their peers. They recount what went down during the recording sessions between the artists and what inspired the compositions. These are often rich, beautiful stories, being passed down from those that experienced the moments.

One of the finest of the series is John Coltrane's Jazz Profile, in two parts. An often misunderstood musician, this great artist was perhaps the most important figure in modern jazz. Starting as a be-bop player influenced primarily by Parker and Diz, he pushed the jazz art form to new heights letting his passion for his tenor saxophone and his spirituality move the music in directions never heard before. Now virtually any sax player must study and learn from Trane on his or her journey to becoming a jazz player.

Trane's later years were particularly controversial, as he introduced forms into his music void of rhythm and traditional chordal structures. However, listening to these programs on John Coltrane will surely give you a better appreciation for this man's passion in his music, and the direction it ultimately led.

Here are the links to John Coltrane - Profile in Jazz from NPR
Part 1
Part 2

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall 1961

I first discovered Stanley Crouch back when I was in graduate school in the late eighties. Crouch was one of those jazz critics that the music demands: he cut through all the nonsense to show you what you should be looking for. I recently purchased a collection of his writings on jazz: Considering Genius. It is a treasure trove of reflections on jazz composition. When I opened it, in the bookstore, I chanced upon these words:

So much was behind him on that Manhattan night of May 19 when he walked out onto that world famous stage in 1961 and heard the applause of a full house.

That was enough to sell the book, and more than enough to sell the CD. A lot of Mile Davis live is documented. Live at the Blackhawk is marvelous, as is the more challenging Live at the Plugged Nickel. My Funny Valentine will play in my car tomorrow as I start up the engine. But the Carnegie Hall recording is special. Miles showed up with his quintet de jour: Hank Mobley on Sax, Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Behind them was Gil Evans with a 21 piece orchestra. The recording alternates between Miles and the quintet, and Miles and the orchestra. Perhaps in no other recording did Miles show how thoroughly he had mastered the dimensions of the music that he had nurtured into being.

Here is the only cut where both the quintet and the orchestra are playing. Fans will recognize the number from Kind of Blue.
Mils Davis/Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall/So What?/1961

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lee Konitz and the perfect poetry of bop

Lee_konitz Jazz is to popular music what poetry is to popular writing, which is to say, unpopular. Neither the consumers of the one or the other have ever constituted more than a sliver of the public. Part of the reason is that both make great demands on the audience. U.S. Poet laureate Joseph Brodsky argued that poetry is the most perfect literary form because it says what it says in the most efficient way possible. Consider one of my favorite poems, by A.E. Houseman:

Stars,I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.

The reader has to see through the poem to recognize that it is about inertia, something that is perfectly beautiful precisely because it is terrible: it makes human life possible, in all its beauty and wonder, and dooms us at the same time. That truth and two unforgettable images, is a lot to squeeze into 44 words.

Brilliant jazz works simultaneously in two directions. It takes a basic melody and plays all around it, expanding the melody along any number of chordal and modal dimensions. Every drop of passion and conception is teased out. But it also works by leaving things out. What is not played is as important as what is played, and hints abound. It's easy to get carried away, and a lot of modern jazz is incomprehensible to me. But perhaps it is just too demanding.

I have been listening to Lee Konitz, an alto sax player of consummate genius. Konitz's music is not background music. You have to listen to it attentively. But if you do, the rewards are awesome. I recommend Alone Together, with pianist Brad Mehldau and bass player Charlie Haden. Slightly more demanding is his Duets, a series of encounters with jazz guitarist Jim Hall, tenor player Joe Henderson, trombonist Marshall Brown, and others. Every Konitz number is a perfect poem, efficiently mapping out previously unexplored corridors of the human soul.

For a quick taste, try this clip at Daily Motion. Konitz joins his long time collaborator, Warne Marsh.

The above post is an old one from SDP. Here is something new: a sample from Alone Together, the great Thelonious Monk standard.

Lee Konitz, Brad Mehldau, Charlie Haden/Alone Together/Round Midnight/1997

Enjoy, and if you do enjoy, buy the CD.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Jazz Library 7: Discovering Wayne Shorter

Miles Davis' second great quintet came together when Wayne Shorter was lured away from the Jazz Messengers. Miles had tried out a couple of tenor players to replace John Coltrane: Hank Mobley and Lou Donaldson. Both were brilliant, in my view, but neither were quite what Miles was looking for. It was Coltrane himself who suggested Wayne Shorter. You can hear Shorter's composition, Iris, performed by the second quintet at this previous post.

As I indicated, Shorter cut his teeth as musical director for Art Blakey. Shorter's presence and virtuosity is evident on all the Jazz Messenger discs he contributed to. His compositions surely make up the lion's share of great writing for that group in those years. Here is a sample of my personal favorites.
The Big Beat includes Lee Morgan on trumpet, Bobby Timmons on piano, Jymie Merrit on Bass, and of course Blakey on drums.

But of course Shorter recorded a lot of music as leader. These are some of my favorite jazz documents. In fact I would rank Speak No Evil (1964) as one of the ten best jazz albums. It certainly ranks as one of the best jazz saxophone albums. His Adam's Apple (1966) has a similar stature, containing one of Shorter's most loved compositions: Footprints.

But I offer here a cut from Juju (1964). In many ways this disc is the best introduction to Wayne Shorter's genius. It is spooky. The album title is a variant on Voodoo. A lot of Shorter's work has a spooky, smoky, mood to it. "House of Jade" is grounded in a simple, haunting melody. All this appeals to me, as I am a great fan of the spooky story. I also share with Shorter an interest in Buddhism.
Juju includes McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass, and Elvin Jones on drums.

Wayne Shorter is my personal favorite jazzman. I am convinced that he is deeply under appreciated. Enjoy.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Mail bag

I received this kind note from JW:
Dr Blanchard,

I have been following your jazz blog, and I would like to recommend some albums. I am of course assuming you do not already have copies.

The first is a Dizzy Gillespie album, "Sonny Side Up," Featuring Gillespie on trumpet, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone, and a rhythm section of pianist Ray Bryant, bassist Tommy Bryant, and drummer Charlie Persip. This was on of the first albums I bought when I was in high school. I enjoyed it then, and I enjoy it now. Especially enjoyable is the contrast between Stitt and Rollins. And of course Diz has his moments.

If you do not own any Clifford Brown, you should. There are two box sets, if you want to collect by that route. A four disc set: "The Complete Blue Note and Pacific Jazz Recordings." The highlight of this set are two albums recorded live at Birdland with the Art Blakey quintet.

The second set is the 10 disc: Brownie: The Complete Emarcy Recordings. The discs in this set include some jam sessions, and the Max Roach -Clifford Brown albums. Most, if not all, of the Roach-Brown albums can be found individually if you would prefer to go that route. I am very partial to these sets, but I must admit Clifford is my favorite jazz trumpeter.

All the best,

As it happens, I do have the Clifford Brown Blue Note box. I am now drooling over the prospect of the 10 disc Emarcy box. I am not sure who my favorite jazz trumpet is. My SDP colleague Jason Heppler is very fond of Lee Morgan, and the Sidewinder is a marvelous sample of his work. I am exploring the works of Freddie Hubbard right now. Hub-tones, and Ready for Freddie are excellent discs. Hubbard also played on Wayne Shorter's Speak No Evil, one of the best jazz recordings, in my opinion.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jazz Library 6: Coltrane Crawlin'

Miles Davis' two quintets can form the spine of a good jazz library, as I argued in my previous post. But a second body of work would do just as well: the corpus of John Coltrane's recordings. Trane is surely the only serious rival to Davis as the most influential player, leader, and composer of the fifties and sixties. He is arguably more popular than Davis.

Coltrane left an extraordinarily rich and endlessly delightful body of music. His most important recordings come after he left Davis and formed his own great quartet with McCoy Tyner. I'll get around to that, but lets start at the beginning. Prestige Records has issued an excellent boxed set of Trane's recordings in 1957 and 58, John Coltrane: Fearless Leader. I blogged about it some time ago at SDP. The entire box is available at eMusic.

Here is a fair sample of the first session, a Coltrane composition called Chronic Blues. Johnny Splawn is on trumpet, Mal Waldron on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Albert "Tootie" Heath on Drums. But the most interesting player on this set is Shiab Shihab on baritone saxophone. His slithering lines add a touch that makes me wonder why this instrument is relatively rare in jazz.

John Coltane/Chronic Blues/Fearless Leader/1957
If you like it, get the box.