Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Johnny Griffin 1928-2008

If memory serves, and often it goes awol, I first heard the Little Giant's horn on an NPR special that I recorded years ago, and listened to with ear buds while laying around a campsite in the Ozark mountains. I was utterly captivated by the way that Griffin was able to tell little stories over and over, with each one presenting a different moral. At least that is what I told my brother I heard.

It wasn't until recently that I actually acquired some Griffin recordings. The first was The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk. After Jazz, my favorite musical tradition is Celtic. In this recording, Griffin builds on traditional Irish tunes, like Danny Boy and Green Grow the Rushes, without losing a single ounce of jazz feeling. It is not an easy disc to find, but I was pleased to find it on eMusic. The greatest power of a powerful jazz composer is that of listening, and Johnny Griffin knew how to listen to a distinct musical tradition, and how to listen to his own marvelous transliteration of its bones and sinews into the language of jazz.

I think that Griffin's finest work might have been the recordings at the Five Spot Cafe with Thelonious Monk. Monk was almost certainly the greatest composer of the bop tradition, precisely because his work presents such delicious challenges to any interpreter. Griffin is more than up to that challenge. The genius that is evident in The Kerry Dancers is equally evident here: the ability to master the geometry of a new kosmos and create new worlds within it.

Another good sample of Griffin's work is Blues Up and Down, with Eddie Lockjaw Davis. Here the task is to managed a conversation with that other great tenor player, backed by a fine rhythm section.

But it's The Kerry Dancers that does it for me. Here is a sample.

Johnny Griffin/The Kerry Dancers/The Kerry Dancers and Other Swinging Folk/1962
Barry Harris p, Ron Carter b, and Ben Riley d. If you like it, join eMusic and get the whole thing.

Griffin died just hours before a concert. He was an incredible beautiful musical mind. Don't let him get past you. You won't hear this again in any universe.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Johnny Griffin Dies in Paris

The Little Giant, dead at 80. Johnny Griffin was one of my personal favorite tenor players. I want to get around to a more serious obit, but for now this earlier post on Griffin and Thelonious Monk will have to do.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Jazz & Accessibility

The kind of music celebrated here has never had mainstream appeal, and it never will. It may have a great influence on mainstream music, but most folks just aren't going to be turned on to Miles Davis's ESP or John Coltrane' Live at the Village Vanguard. The simple reason is that the music makes considerable demands on the listener. You have to be able to hear a lot that isn't explicitly stated, and recognize the heart of the melody even when the band is playing all around the periphery. I am not saying that jazz fans are smarter people, just that they have a taste that is unlikely to be shared by most listeners. The same is true of a lot of other musical genres, like Indie Rock. You don't hear that on the radio in South Dakota.

I have written about this in an earlier post on Lee Konitz, where I compared bop to poetry, another art form that always has a small audience. But some jazz is a lot more accessible than other jazz, and the listener may well want to know the difference in order to tell whether a recording will fit within his or her own comfort zone. Otherwise valuable resources, like the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, aren't much help on this. It is as though the most dedicated Jazz listeners don't seem to be aware of the difference.

I have long toyed with the idea of creating an accessibility scale, and here is my first attempt. It may be useful especially for the fan just getting into jazz. The scale is from A1 to A5, with A1 being as accessible as any popular song, and A5 being all but unintelligible to some members of the band.

A1 jazz might not be recognized as jazz by some fans, but it is at least a useful boundary. Put a lot of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett here. A1 jazz will include jazz standards, but will stick closely to a melody that will be instantly recognizable to anyone who doesn't have a tin ear.

A2 jazz is A1 jazz with at least some improvisation and jazz exploration thrown in. Most of Dianna Krall falls into this category. Straightforward melody is most of what she sings, while the band is allowed to get in some genuine bop in between verses. Or the singer may remain pretty close to the melody, while swinging wide now and then. Cassandra Wilson and Joni Mitchell have recorded a lot of A2 jazz. This can be very beautiful stuff, but it is not what any jazz lover would call adventurous.

A3 jazz is the level of straightforward bop. The classic form begins with a melody clearly stated, and follows with a series of solos that improvise on that melody. Most of the core library of bop falls around the A3 mark, as I think it should. Miles Davis first quintet, Cookin', is a fine example, as is Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, or almost anything by Bill Evans. Despite his well-deserved reputation for weirdness, most of Thelonious Monk's recordings are easily pegged as A3 jazz.

A4 jazz is where a lot of listeners lose the drift. Here the recognizable foundations of most music, melody, chord changes, harmony, and often pretty sounds get left behind for the exploration of pure musical ideas. No figure of modern jazz is more firmly associated with this kind of music than Eric Dolphy. For example, a fine piece of A4 jazz is Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, and sure enough, there is Dolphy playing his alto. But a good way to test the distance between A3 and A4 is to listen to one of the Miles Davis Live at the Blackhawk discs, and then chase it with one of the Live at the Plugged Nickel sides. With the former, one of my favorite live collections, you can always tell that you are listening to Oleo or No Blues. At the Plugged Nickel, it often doesn't matter what the name of the song is, and you would be hard pressed to name it from anything that is going on during the number. Don't get me wrong, a lot of A4 jazz is pure genius, and I listen to the Plugged Nickel on a regular basis.

A5? Well, there is Ornette Coleman, or Albert Ayler. But it is best to consider this as a boundary rather than a genre all its own. This is sometimes called "free jazz," but it often seems to free itself from music entirely. In a pure A5 document, very few listeners could tell the difference between a right note or a note rightly played, and one that is neither. I think that A5 is probably the point at which the music is disintegrating, but may only mean that the demands it makes on me are not demands that I can meet.

Now, having laid this out, I am not at all sure I can maintain it. Most jazz will fall between the clear points. If Cookin' or Relaxin' are right on A3, the Blackhawk is moving in the direction of A4. But maybe this will be of more help than the traditional categories like hard bop, free jazz, or avant garde. If not, well I wasted a good hour's thought. But we'll see.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In The Groove Does Jazz Note

My dear friend and Jazz Note contributor Ken Laster has devoted on of his In The Groove radio shows to this blog. I could not be more grateful. In The Groove has been a vital part of my jazz experience since first I discovered it. I believe I have listened to every show available online.

As I have noted before, Ken has sold a lot of jazz. I estimate that I have purchased about 50 discs after hearing a sample on ITG. This is especially true of recent jazz, which is surprisingly hard to sample in the contemporary environment.

I am trying to do the same service to the music I love by means of this blog. I offer the occasional sample, so that readers will have some idea of what I am talking about. If you like the samples, buy the discs.

Thanks, Ken. One of these days I am going to get up your way. Dinner's on me.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Jazz Library 9: Book Making with Booker Ervin

One of the joys of jazz collecting is to discover some well-documented jazzman whom one has never heard of, but whose music sounds like it should rank with the elder gods of bop. I posted a while back on Booker Ervin, when I had just heard his recording That's It! I found Ervin while thumbing through the Jazz Nerd's Bible, The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings. That's It! is a fine disc, very accessible, straightforward bop. Booker was a frequent sideman for Charles Mingus, who apparently thought very highly of him and compared him to Eric Dolphy. Mingus was right.

In 1963 and 64 Ervin recorded a number of superb discs that ought to be part of every serious jazz collection. He made it easy for us to spot them at this distance in time by their titles: Song Book, Blues Book, Freedom Book, and Space Book. Based on the names alone, the collector will suspect he is looking at a coherent set, and he wouldn't be wrong. All four recordings feature Richard Davis on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. One of my personal favorites, Tommy Flanagan, plays piano on Song Book, while Jaki Byard is at the keyboard on Space Book and Freedom Book. This was a marvelous project. As you might guess, Song Book is the most accessible of the four. The rest are very adventurous jazz, of the kind that Dolphy is famous for. But everyone is worth listening to over and over.

Here is a sample from Song Book.

Booker Ervin/Come Sunday/Song Book/1964
All four of the "books" are available at eMusic for pennies. If you like this cut, by the disc.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Jazz the way it should be.

The best way to experience jazz music has to be live in a New York City jazz club. It just doesn't get any better. Live, up-close and personal. The Jazz Standard is just one of those places. Get there an hour or so early, and it is easy to grab a table a few short feet from the stage. Sunday evening, June 29 we experienced the George Coleman Quintet with special guest Eric Alexander. These are two killer tenor sax players. Coleman (71 yrs), one of the all-time masters of the tenor, who has played with the greatest jazz artists of all-time, including being a member of the Miles Davis Quintet (with the dubious distinction of being replaced by Wayne Shorter), Jimmy Smith, Dizzy, Lee Morgan, Max Roach, and more. Eric Alexander is one of the great young talents and powerful players on jazz scene today.

Their contrasting styles made for an incredible evening of jazz music. Eric Alexander is a superb technician with amazing chops. He has a powerful, lush sounding horn with which he played perfect solos throughout the evening. George Coleman had a more fluid yet raw playing style, but his ideas stretched the compositions to new directions, taking his solos to places you didn't expect him to go. I won't soon forget the great piano playing of Harold Mabern, another grand master of his instrument that has graced the jazz scene for 40 years or more. His playing was simply amazing, and he has played with both these gentleman for each of their entire careers.

I even snuck-in a short video clip, though the manager came over and warned me to stop using the camera. Here it is, I hope it gives you a little feel for what the evening was like.

George Coleman ts, Eric Alexander ts, Harold Mabern p, John Webber b, George Coleman Jr. d.