Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Freddie Hubbard Dies at 70

A blast from the vast goes into the past. Okay, I got a little carried away there. But trumpet man Freddie Hubbard was the genuine article: a straight ahead hard-bopper, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. He played with the Jazz Messengers in the early sixties, and made some classic recordings as leader. I highly recommend Open Sesame, Hub-Tones, and Ready for Freddie. I'll try to do a decent review of these sometime this week, in honor of Hubbard.

Meanwhile, here is a sample from a lesser known but very strong recording, Red Clay (1970). It features Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Lenny White on drums, and Joe Henderson on tenor sax. I just happened to have picked it up a few days ago at Barnes and Noble in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
Red Clay/Freddie Hubbard/Red Clay
And here is Hubbard playing one of his compositions with the Jazz Messengers. Curtis Fuller on trombone, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Cedar Walton on piano, Jymie Merritt on bass, and of course Art Blakey on drums.
Down Under/Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers/Mosaic
If you don't have Mosaic, for heavens sake buy it. It's pure gold from the guys that invented gold.

Best Jazz Compositions 6: Moanin'

Bobby Timmons' great composition "Moanin' appears first, I think, on the Art Blakey & and the Jazz Messenger's recording with that title. That presentation is absolutely perfect. I can't think of a better example of a hard bop passion. The way the melody is so explicitly and articulately announced, and then the players dig down into it, that is enough for the hall of fame. But the end of the piece, when the band comes back together to deliver the meat of the tune, that is the coming of the Lord. Blakey's piano man was doing God's work when he wrote this one out.

Here is Timmon's own presentation, from his Moanin' Blues. It's not bad, and I recommend the album. Another great place to hear the tune is this magnificent video clip, featuring Freddie Hubbard, Art Blakey, Walter Davis Jr, Curtis Fuller, and one of my jazz heroes, Johnny Griffin. Man is this hot! When you can see the sweat running down along Art Blakey's generous smile, you have seen jazz distilled. Hubbard's solo, followed by Griffin's slicing of the tune, each is worth othe admition price whatever is was. Curtis Fuller is as under apprecated as the song, but his spacy looking horn is not to be missed.

Nothing in music is so compelling as a compelling melody. Moanin' grabs you where it hurts so good.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 5: Trane's Naima

In picking out the best single Coltrane composition (excluding the epic works), it was a hard call between 'Naima' and 'Lonnie's Lament'. Heck, maybe I'll include that one too before I get to number ten. But I seem to have the impression that 'Naima' has been covered more often.

This is surely Coltrane's most lyrical and romantic moment. Like all great romances, it strikes a very simple and pure artery of passion. It appears on Trane's Giant Steps, his single most inventive album. Here is a bit from Jazz.com:
First, it’s a gorgeous piece of writing – how many times has “Naima” been covered over the years? – and, second, it is played with great patience and restraint. The tune runs only 4 minutes 21 seconds, but the quartet is in no rush to get there. In mood, “Naima” shares traits with Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue album, on which Coltrane played a key role just months earlier, but this is a very different piece of work, because there’s a real melody here. The rhythm section holds back while Coltrane blows simple, unadorned passages that haunt, and pianist Wynton Kelly delivers a touching solo of his own. Once while listening to this song, pay attention only to bassist Paul Chambers’ thump-thump- thumping. It’s quite revealing.
I won't try to compete with that. But here is one of my favorite covers, by one of my favorite under appreciated jazz geniuses: Arthur Blythe. 'Naima' from Blythe Byte. Blythe's horn is a bit more lush than one would expect, on top of John Hicks understated piano. Can't lose with this one.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 4: A Night In Tunisia

This one is famous enough. According to legend (read: don't think it really happened), Dizzy Gillespie composed this one on the top of an overturned garbage can. I really hope that's true! It's an unforgettable melody, made famous by Gillespie's big band and by the Jazz Messengers. Here is my favorite recording of 'Night in Tunisia' by Dexter Gordon on his magnum opus, Our Man in Paris. Most jazz fans will already have this disc, but if you don't, listen and then buy the darned thing! It is easily one of the best bop albums ever recorded.

There is also a superb video clip of Gordon performing ANIT, available on Daily Motion. It was apparently produced by Dutch TV. Gordon walks along a dark, moist, street in a trench coat and hat. The year is 1964. As he approaches the door of the nightclub, you can hear the band warming up. Gordon walks into the club, takes his hat and coat off and hands them to the guy behind the bar. He joins the band and takes up his horn and says: "And now we go into the land of the sun, and the sand dunes, and the heat ..." This clip is by God what jazz is.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 3: Goodbye Pork Pie Hat

In no particular order (except putting 'Round Midnight' first) my third best-in-house-jazz-composition is 'Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,' Charlie Mingus' homage to Lester Young. Back when I was trying, unsuccessfully, to learn to pay the guitar, I sort of learned to play this song. I have always found the melody irresistible. It appears first, I believe, on Mingus' magnum opus: Mingus Ah Um. That version is superb, and very easy to find. Another excellent version can be found on Joni Mitchell's Mingus, her homage to that Wolf Larson of jazz. Mitchell wrote lyrics.
When Charlie
speaks of Lester,
You know someone
great has gone.
That swingin'
sweetest music man,
had a Porky Pig Hat on.
Not bad. But the version I tried to learn to play was transcribed by a very patient guitar teacher from a rather obscure album by John McLaughlin: My Goals Beyond. Here's McLaughlin's cover of Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Strausphunkish Music of George Russell

George Russell spent his life pursuing a theory of music. His quest began, interestingly enough, with a remark by Miles Davis in 1945. Russell asked Davis was his musical aim was. Davis answered, with that Zen master gift of his, that it was "to learn all the changes." There are a lot of stories about Miles that go like this. Anyway, Russell landed in a hospital with TB that same year, and spent 16 months working on Davis' Koan. The result was his "Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization." I understand that title the way a well-trained dog understands the word "fetch." I have vague ideas about scales and such, and I can sniff around for them. But I don't understand much more than that. Anyway, Russell's theories seem to have been the foundation of the modal jazz work of Davis and Coltrane. That's pretty good, considering that Russell was working as a clerk at Macy's when his book was published.

I have been listening to Russell's early sixties work. Ezz-thetics is probably his most famous recording. It has a very interesting cover of 'Round Midnight.' Here is the title piece from Stratusphunk. It's not half bad.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Best Jazz Compositions 2: Blue in Green

'Blue in Green', written by Bill Evans, gets a lot less attention than 'Round Midnight', but surely deserves as much. For shear lyrical beauty, I am not sure it can be bested. And I like it for the same reason as I like Monk's great standard. Despite it's origins in the "modal jazz" experiment of Miles Davis, there is nothing the least bit abstract about 'Blue in Green.' To play either of them is to conjure up the broken heart that never mends walking down the street that is always dark. But whereas 'RM' seems to be weaving a narrative, 'Blue in Green' is much more impressionistic. Even the title suggests as much. It is the palate of emotional colors rather than the details and forms that is primary.

Evans composed the piece for Miles, and it made its debut on Kind of Blue. I doubt that version can be bested. Here is how NPR tells the story:

Davis was at a musical peak in the 1950s and had been preparing the ideas that would become Kind of Blue for years. A year before the recording, Davis slipped Evans a piece of paper on which he'd written with the musical symbols for "G minor" and "A augmented."

"See what you can do with this," Davis said. Evans went on to create a cycle of chords as a meditative framework for solos on "Blue in Green."

I don't know enough about music to appreciate the specifics, but the story is part and parcel of the song when I listen. Here is a version recorded by Evans and his astonishing trio: Scott LaFaro on bass, and Paul Motian on drums. The album is Portrait in Jazz.

It adds something to the hearing of this particular interpretation that Scott LaFaro died in an a car accident less than two years after recording this album. More significantly, his death came ten days after the Village Vanguard sessions that stand as Bill Evans' magnum opus. Jazz is rarely happy music. A lot of musical genres help us to see the beauty in the tragic side of human life. I think jazz maps out the geography of sadness with more detail and depth than any other music.

If you want a superb Christmas mixer disc, 'Round Midnight', followed by 'Blue in Green', is a very good start.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Christmas List 3: Best Jazz Compositions

One way to give the gift of jazz is to prepare your own mixer tape of best jazz numbers from several different recordings. A possible theme would be great covers of great jazz compositions. That, of course, requires a list of great compositions. I will put some items on the list over the next few days. Maybe it will be in time for Christmas.

I was tempted to do a countdown series, ending with the number one best composition by a jazz hero. I won't do that, because I am too disorganized and lazy. I will start with number one. Here I have empirical data. I scrolled down the list of songs in my iPod, and one stood out from the crowd. I had to twiddle my thumb about three times to get through all the covers of "Round Midnight," by Thelonious Monk. I am guessing I have about thirty versions of that tune.

"Round Midnight" stands, I think, as the best single composition by a working jazz man. It is deeply romantic and, if you can remember hearing it for the first time, musically surprising. But more than anything else, it conjures up what I take to be the essential jazz setting: a dark city street, moisture on cobblestone, and a heart full up with tragedy. Hell, it even served as the title and theme for a movie. Dexter Gordon starred in Round Midnight. It got panned, but I loved it.

The composition has been done hundreds of times, I would guess. So which version is best? That would be a week long project. I have a couple of suggestions. I have already posted on version on my drop.io site: Thelonious Monk and Gerry Mulligan. Here you have the composer and an excellent horn player beside him.

But if you are looking for something new, try this one, from Joe Henderson, The Standard Joe. Rufus Reid on bass and Al Foster on drums. Henderson is trying to find new nuggets in well sifted soil here, but I think he finds them.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Bill Evans & Heroin

Bill Evans was my first jazz hero, largely because an English teacher at Arkansas State University introduced me to Evan's music while also introducing me to fine wine. Since then I have collected a lot of Evan's music, and there is a lot. Most of the recordings he made as leader were in the trio format. Evans made his mark as an introspective dowager, seeking the vein of true song inside any melody, and squeezing every last drop of it out. But Evans did a lot of recording. He was side man on some very important albums: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, and Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else.

One Evans recording that deserves more credit that it gets is Loose Blues. It's easy to disregard it. I picked it up in grad school, and only learned when I unwrapped the album that the recording session was a mess. Evans put the session together because he need money for smack. Apparently everyone was grumpy. Everyone included Zoot Sims on tenor, Jim Hall on Guitar, Ron Carter on Bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums. That's some pretty expensive grump.

Whatever demons were chewing away at Bill Even's soul, he could still play. And he could compose. All the compositions on the recording are his. This disc makes me wish he had done more quartets and quintets. A good sample is the first number, billevans-01-loosebloose.

Check it out, and then buy the album. You won' say I steered you wrong.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Page Four Jazz For Trane

Page Four Jazz is the category in which I put avant garde and free jazz, and generally any jazz that challenges our conception of what music ought to sound like. And you say: what d'ya mean we? Well, yeah, there's the rub. A lot of jazz that sounded like noise to me at one time is now starting to sound like great art. I don't know if I have developed as a listener, or if my brain has been damaged.

But anyway here are some adventurous pieces of jazz that hover around the work of John Coltrane the way that much of avant garde hovers around Thelonious Monk. First, Archie Shepp from his album Four For Trane. The number is the Trane composition: Syeeda's Song Flute. It's pretty ragged, and I am guessing that some Trane worshipers won't like what he does with the master's work. But I find it pretty persuasive. Shepp on tenor, John Tichicai alto, Alan Shorter (Wayne's brother?) on trumpet, Roswell Rudd trombone, Reggie Workman bass, and Charles Moffett drums.

Another piece of Trane tracking is Charles Gayle, William Parker, and Rashied Ali, Touchin' On Trane. The piece is called Part B, which is very avant garde. It exemplifies the abstraction that is a common characteristic of this music. It's more out there than Shepp's tribute, but it's worth checkin' out. Parker's bass work on this piece is really astounding.

You might also check out David Murray's tribute Take the Coltrane, from The Hill. I posted this song earlier.