Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Trane Goes Off the Rails with Ascension

Over the last couple of years I have expanded my ear quite a bit. I now enjoy a lot of avant garde jazz that I would never have listened to before. I like Steve Lacy, Cecil Taylor, and even managed to enjoy Albert Ayler for brief periods of time. I have grown positively fond of Eric Dolphy. So I thought, maybe this is the time to try John Coltrane's Ascension. I got it and listened to it today.

It is unendurable. The word cacophony comes to mind. "Harsh and discordant sound," says Merriam Webster. You could have put the Ascension album cover next to the definition. Its harsh and discordant, and little else. Mark Twain says of Wagner's music that "it's not as bad as it sounds." That is very clever criticism. It means that a work of music sounds dreadful, but is well-thought of by the critics. Twain wasn't fooled, and I ain't neither. Ascension is as bad as it sounds. Coltrane was drilling for mother load that he thought lay just a few meters deeper. Unfortunately, all he got was an album that sounds like drilling.

You want some drilling that turns up something? Try David Murray's The Hill. I have posted "Take the Coltrane" on my account. Murray is into some weird shit, man. But everything on this challenging disc is more coherent than what is on Ascension. The Trane went off the rails.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Jazz for Halloween

Jazz is my favorite music, and Halloween is my favorite holiday. Well, maybe my second after Christmas. I am incurably fond of spooky stories. NPR's Take Five: A Weekly Jazz Sampler, has a Halloween post. It's pretty good. It includes Wayne Shorter's Witch Hunt, from Speak No Evil, in my view, one of the best jazz albums ever produced. Shorter wrote and drew scifi and other spooky comics as a young man, and this comes out in his music. Juju, Speak No Evil, and Roots and Herbs (Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers) all carry a voodoo scent.

Buy I would also recommend Greg Abate. Monsters in the Night is one of my favortite jazz recordings. You can find a sample at my site. If you like it, go to Greg's Website and order the disc.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Albert Ayler vs. Kenny Burrell

I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, and maybe it's a sign of spiritual progress and maybe it's a sign of brain damage, but I am getting to like it. There are moments when a coherent tune starts to bore me, and I long for a spooky, twisting, what the Hell was that? line to keep life interesting. I confess that I even picked up an Albert Ayler disc from eMusic.

I first encountered Ayler after reading a short piece in Rolling Stone (I think!) by Patti Smith. I bought an Ayler LP and couldn't make heads or tails of it, even when I was stoned. That may have been thirty years ago. So it was with some trepidation that I downloaded Spiritual Unity, by the Albert Ayler Trio. Apparently my ear is getting to the level of consciousness that Patti Smith reached when I was a very young man. The recording is very well made, with every tone and echo evident. But it is pure Page Four jazz: no listener could hum the tune, for there is no tune, and I doubt that the most seasoned player could accurately reproduce it after a single hearing. When you are alone with Albert Ayler, you are really alone.

I have loaded Ghosts, from Spiritual Unity, to Give it a listen, to see what Avant Garde is all about. Gary Peacock is on bass, and Sunny Murray on drums. Ayler carves out a cavenerous space, and fills it with bits of traditional melody, and then smears them across the board.

But then compare it with Kenny Burrell's Chitlins Con Carne, from Midnight Blue. The latter was one of the first jazz CDs I purchased, from Rhino Records in Claremont California. It was a remainder, if I remember right, so I got it cheap. Midnight Blue is one of the best recorded jazz discs I have ever heard. Every buzz and thump and exhale is on the tracks. Stanley Turrentine plays tenor, Ray Baretto plays congo (a great idea!), Major Holley plays bass, and Bill English is on drums. This is so damn good it makes your toes curl. It's pure Page Three Jazz: a theme stated, and then milked for all its worth. Burrell and Turrentine engage in a platonic dialogue. The congo is the wheels the cart runs on, while Burrell and Turrentine dance on the flatbed. The bluesy heart beats across the action.

NPR has a short piece on the recording, with a couple of tunes available (including, unfortunately, the one I have on See NPR Jazz Library.

It's okay to have angels hovering about the top of the picture. That's the space for avant garde. But the manger scene has to have a baby, straw, and goats. That, and all the smells and colors of real life. Ayler's job is to decorate the upper arches, Burrell is the center piece. You can sample both at by link. If you like what you hear, buy the discs.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Another Slice of Blythe

This fine Saturday, as I cleaned the house in preparation for a dinner party, I listened to Blythe's Bytes. It is a much more traditional production than the aforebloggedupon Focus. The quartet is standard: Blythe on Alto, John Hicks on piano, Dwayne Dolphin on bass, and Cecil Brooks III on drums. The music is straight ahead jazz. There are a couple of Monk compositions, done with tender care but no surprises. The best piece is an interpretation of Coltrane's "Naima." I have uploade that last one to dropeeoh.
But almost as good is the last piece: "what a friend we have in Jesus". The title of that hymn is almost jazz-like in its subtle statement.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Arthurian Alto of Arthur Blythe

I have been listening to a lot of avant garde jazz lately, against my better judgment, but in obedience to my ears. I chanced upon Arthur Blythe's Focus in the Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings, the Koran of Jazz Jihadists.

This is an astonishing recording on a number of dimensions. First, it is a superbly recorded piece. My usual method of judging a jazz recording is simple: can you hear the buzz of the bass. That doesn't work so well here, as there is no bass. But the crisp strike and echo of every instrument stands out in 3 or 4D. And the constant snort of the tuba is a statement of authenticity.

Second, it is an unusual set of instruments, beyond the absence of the bass (which is the most common instrument in jazz).
Gust William Tsilis plays bass marimba. Bob Stewart plays tuba, and Cecil Brooks III is on drums. The marimba gives the music an exotic, ethnic feel, while the tuba allows the platform to slither under Blythe's horn. This selection of sounds, with its unique sparkle and space, is itself a work of genius.

Finally, Blythe is determined to build a bridge between the avant garde approach to composition, and more traditional hard bop linguistics. The result is something that almost any jazz fan can enjoy, while teasing and titillating connoisseurs all along the range. He does a version of "C.C. Rider" that is almost traditional blues, and a deeply personal piece, "My Son Ra," that pushes the envelope around the heart. A little known Monk piece, "Children's Song" is beautiful, if not so much Monkish in its reading.

I have loaded my favorite piece from the album, "Nightcreeper." It reminds me of a Wayne Shorter composition, and not only for its spooky title. Blythe's alto creeps sinuously across the acoustic landscape, rising occasionally to strike with orchestral force. You can find it at:
Enjoy, and if you do, purchase the disc. You can find it on eMusic.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

On the Edge of Spacy with Lacy

Steve Lacy (1934-2004) knew what he liked: he liked the soprano saxophone. One kind of saxophone or another has dominated modern jazz and especially jazz since bop emerged. This is not to say that the sax is the most common instrument; that would probably be the bass. But the saxophone has been the dominant instrument in establishing the feeling of modern jazz.

Most of the action goes to tenors and altos in that order, and players who favored those instruments occasionally experimented with the larger baritone or smaller soprano sax. Gerry Mulligan pops up when one thinks of a jazz man dedicated to the big horn. While John Coltrane made the smaller sax famous on My Favorite Things, Steve Lacy is about the only jazz man I can think of who played the soprano sax exclusively.

The other thing Lacy liked was the music of Thelonious Monk. A large number of his recordings were dedicated to interpretations of Monk, but it should be noted that he frequently carried Monk out of the hardbop school within which Monk stubbornly remained.

Lacy is mostly avant garde, which is to say that he made the jump from hardbop to "the new thing" along with Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. This is what I call A4, or Page 4 jazz: very challenging music in terms of traditional harmony and melody. But it is precisely Lacy's dedication to Monk that provides the adventurous, somewhat skeptical, but reasonably well-prepared listener (yours truly) a gate into this new realm.

I have been listening to three Steve Lacy recordings: Reflections: Steve Lacy Plays Thelonious Monk, The Straight Horn of Steve Lacy, and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron: At the Bimhuis 1982. I like it. The first is probably the best, but the last is a close second. I am also experimenting with a new file sharing site: (pronounced dropeeoh, if you care). So go to this link for some samples of Lacy's output:
There you will find "Charge 'Em Blues," a cut from Cecil Taylor's classic avant garde recording, Jazz Advance. I am pretty sure it's a Taylor composition, but you will hear a lot of notes that sound positively Monkish. In addition to Taylor and Lacy, Buell Neidlinger is on bass, and Denis Charles on drums. I think any seasoned jazz fan will be able to follow it, so how do you know its A4 jazz? Well, try to hum the tune after it's finished. I think you will have to listen to this file on Apple Quicktime or iTunes.

You will also find "Four In One," from Reflections. This is a simply wonderful interpretation of the Monk tune. It strikes me that Monk's legacy is unusual in so far as he is almost always playing his own music regardless of who he plays with. But he also tends to play a small part of his corpus over and over, while neglecting a lot of really good music. Four In One is delicious. Mal Waldron plays piano,
Buell Neidlinger again on bass, and the great Elvin Jones (Coltrane's Quartet) on drums.

Mal Waldron was well suited to do Monk, and he made a perfect sparring partner for Lacy. I include an interpretation of "Round Midnight," Monk's most famous composition, and, I think, one of the most beautiful melodies in the jazz corpus. But here, I think, one can see both the greatness and the limitations of the avante garde approach. Monk's melody is here treated as something abstract, to be explored musically. The result is quite moving and beautiful, but I think that the dark, rain soaked street that the original conjures up is missing in action. But maybe that's just me.

Give Lacy a listen. One more genius to put on your list. And if you like it, do what I did: buy the music.