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

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
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
This one has Barry Harris p, Leroy Vinnegar b, Lenny McBrowne d.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Jazz Noire

Blanchard's theory of genres begins with the axiom that there a platonic idea at the bottom of every genre. With horror, it's the idea of evil made physically manifest. With science fiction, it's the idea that the physical laws that govern the ordinary world can or soon will make the fantastic possible. Some genres depend largely on a coherent image or set of images. Give me hats, horses, and handguns, I'll give you a Western. Musical genres are harder to pin down, largely because the "language" of music isn't really language and doesn't translate into language.

It is very helpful, then, when a musical genre is somehow tied to a story-telling genre. Jazz is rather closely tied to the Noire genre, the school of film making that arose out of the collision between German cinematography and the "hard-boiled" American crime novel. And I would argue that the idea underlying the film noire is very simple: it is the idea of human loneliness and fear in a world without piety. Film noire characters are distinguished by the fact that they live without believing in anything. The police and politicians (higher levels of social organization are rarely mentioned) are corrupt. Goodness is possible; indeed, it frequently shines like a torch in a hero like Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe. But the hero is almost inevitably jaded, and with good reason. In the long run, his heroism is entirely hopeless. The most he can achieve are small acts of justice and mercy. Like everyone else, he lives without piety; but he has to go on living, and what makes it possible is observing. He finds his satisfaction in seeing things just the way they are.

Jazz is born and grows in pretty much the same time period as the noire genre, and I think it springs from much the same existential stance. Classical music is unthinkable without God or (what is much the same thing), an orderly universe. It's landscapes are those of the day, even if the sky is full of dark clouds. And while it may be played in Paris, it frequently finds itself recreating the countryside. Jazz begins and perhaps ends with lonely human beings, walking down a city street at night under no illumination other than that of a neon sign. I am of course exagerating my case. To be sure, a lot of jazz is happy and a lot of classical music stirs up existentially ambigous currents. But I think I get the two genres right in general.

One of the best examples of the marriage between jazz and film noire is the French film Ascenseur pour l'echafaud, or Elevator to the Gallows. A young man commits a murder but gets stuck in an elevator while trying to leave the scene. His gorgeous accomplice and lover walks the streets of Paris, increasingly convinced that ... Watch it! Miles Davis created the soundtrack, playing while he watched the film projected on a wall. If you get the DVD, you can see a short clip of Miles in this process. Behind Miles was a group consisting of Barney Wilen ts, Rene Urtreger p, Pierre Michelot b, and Kenny Clarke d. Here is a clip from the CD.

See my file on

A more recent example of jazz noire is Terrence Blanchard's marvelous disc, Jazz in Film. All of the numbers are soundtracks, most of them from straight noire films. Having listened to it a dozen times recently, I now find myself looking for the DVDs. Here is a clip from the disc: a Duke Ellington composition for the film of the same name.

See my file on

Terrence Blanchard t, Donald Harrison as, Steve Turre tb, Kenny Kirkland p, Reginald Veal b, and Carl Allen d. Both discs are excellent, so if you like the clips, buy the whole thing.