Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Two Pianos on Kind of Blue

Legend has it that Wynton Kelly was irritated when he showed up at Columbia Studios on March 2nd, 1959. Bill Evans was sitting at the piano. Miles had hired Kelly to replace Evans, who didn't stand up well to touring. One can understand. But I think that Evans probably had almost as much to do with the texture of Kind of Blue as Miles did. Evans was one of the jazz giants of the era, surely in the top ten. No one played or composed with such a combination of heart and mind, softly digging into the feeling of every cord. If you look up "introspective" in the dictionary, you'll see a picture of Bill Evans bending low over the keys. As a leader, he was almost exclusively devoted to the standard piano trio. One of the things that makes Kind of Blue so wonderful is that preserves that degree of concentration and sensitivity that marks the Bill Evans trios in the context of a sextet.

Wynton Kelly was not that kind of genius, but he was a damn fine piano player. Whereas Evans was always exploring, asking and answering questions, Kelly was a muscular dancer. He appears only on one cut, "Freddie the Freeloader" on KOB. But he falls right into the goove, exploring the space with as much sensitivity as anyone could ask.

Here is a nice piece from a Kelly disc, recorded a couple of weeks earlier.
Wynton Kelly/Keep It Moving (take 4)/Kelly Blue
It's a three horn arrangement: the other Adderley, Nat, on cornet, Bobby Jaspar on flugglehorn, and Trane's highschool buddy Benny Golson on tenor. Paul Chambers plays bass and Jimmy Cobb drums. Both would appear on KOB. I've got several Kelly recordings in my collection, including Kelly Great, Kelly at Midnight, and Full View. Kelly Blue is the pick of the litter.

Here's a very nice cut with Evans leading a larger than trio group. It was recorded in 1976, and the recording is superb. The bass buzzes and the drum has depth.
Bill Evans/Sweet Dulcinea/Quintessence
Harold Land plays tenor sax and Kenny Burrell is on guitar. Ray Brown no bass and Philly Joe Jones on drums. This is the kind of music they play on the elevators in Heaven.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Miles Post-KOB, Tony Williams & Sam Rivers

I enjoyed a couple of comments to my last post, from Bass is Life and André. André went to the trouble to include a long passage from "Jazz, the Basics", by Christopher Meeder. I strongly recommend that you read it, for it brings a lot of what Miles was doing in the early sixties into focus. He was trying to "rebuild" a group equal to the one that recorded Kind of Blue. He was also reacting to the challenge presented by Ornette Coleman and the "new thing." I was particularly interested in what is said about Tony Williams.
Williams was a shocking prodigy-- the year before, he made his recording debut with Jackie McLean and was already a driving drummer with an extreme dynamic range and a raging sense of tempo, able to play polyrhythms that seasoned veterans had trouble following.
I confess that I didn't know that Miles briefly picked up Sam Rivers on tenor.
After a brief experiment with Sam Rivers on tenor (here, the contrast was too great, and while Rivers is a fantastically creative player, he sounds more at home in free jazz contexts), Davis hired Wayne Shorter away from Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to complete the group.
I concurr in the judgment. Rivers was not where Miles was going. Wayne Shorter was, and that made all the difference.

One can only guess what Miles' music would have been like if he had stuck with Rivers. I am guessing that Sam Rivers, like Shorter, was a pretty strong musical personality. But Rivers was strongly committed to the avante garde approach.

To see what Rivers represented, I offer a couple of selections. One is from Tony Williams' recording Life's Time. I picked it up last Christmas, and it is worth a listen. But one should be warned: it is very Page Four. It's coherent, but melody is not the main thing.
Anthony Williams/Tomorrow Afternoon/Life's Time
I like it. Rivers' sax is dominant across the recording. Herbie Hancock plays piano, with Ron Carter, Richard Davis, and Gary Peacock on bass. That's a lot of bass! Bobby Hutcherson shows up on vibes. How to gage the influence of Rivers? Well, listen to a bit of Rivers.
Sam Rivers/Surge/Waves
That's some by God avant garde for you! You can see, I think, the dark star around which Williams was orbiting when he recorded Life's Time. William's recording is better. But both are worth listening to.

For a final contrast, another sample from The Plugged Nickel documents. Miles' second great quintet, with Shorter, Hancock, Carter, and Williams.
Miles Davis/If I Were a Bell/Complete Live at the Plugged Nickel 1965
That's some stuff to chew on.

Miles at Antibes

As we approach the fiftieth of Kind of Blue, maybe it's good to return to the roots of this blog: Miles Davis and his magnificent quintets of the fifties and sixties. I got into serious collecting when I discovered the great Prestige recordings Workin', Steamin', Relaxin', and Cookin'. These great platters were spun, legend has it, merely to satisfy contracts. Each of them is a gem.

Miles second great quintet featured George Coleman and later Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams. It was Coleman's misfortune that his tenure with Miles was sandwiched between Coltrane and Shorter. Coleman may not have had the same compositional genius as Trane and Wayne, but he played a superb Tenor.

In 1963 he played with the quintet at the "Juan-les-Pins Jazz Festival" in Antibes, France. The recording was original released as Miles at Antibes. I searched for it for a long time until I found out that it had been rereleased as Miles in Europe. I bought my son an iPod Touch for his birthday, and slipped it into the order. I hope my wife doesn't read this.

The Antibes date is worth having for the introduction alone. The announcer announces: Kwnatee du Miles Davees avec le jzun Tonee Weelyums ala battree... I know some French, and I gather batree means drums. Anthony Williams was indeed jeune when he played with Miles at Antibes. He was eighteen. Avec Run Cartayer ala Contrabass... That's Ron Carter. Contrabass, well that's just the bass. Avec Erbee Ancook an piano. Herbie Hancock. Jzhorg-ah Colemahn, an Saxophone Teenor... and, drumroll please... aey Miles Davees. I love different accents and tongues, and that turns me on.

Well, here's Mile, Tonee, Run, Erbee, and Jzhorg. Oh, and the intro, so you can check my transcription.
Miles Davis/Intro/Miles in Europe

Miles Davis/Joshua/Miles in Europe
I am constantly amazed at the perfection of Miles' bands on stage. Enjoy this and get the disc. I got it for the price of a good meal at Chipotles. Coleman's solo is worth the burrito alone.

ps. I am getting lots of traffic, but no comments. I am lonely. If you want to see this blog continue, post a comment.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Kind of Blue Turns Fifty

March 2nd will mark the fiftieth anniversary of Kind of Blue, Miles Davis' most perfect recording, and maybe the most perfect in the history of jazz. I plan to return to this theme. For now, here is a post I wrote two years ago.

NPR has a new series, Jazz Profiles, that is available by podcast. I have only listened to one: "Miles Davis: Kind of Blue", a 54 minute adoration to the best selling record in the history of jazz. Almost fifty years after its release, more than 5,000 copies of Kind of Blue are purchased every week. And of course, those are only the legal purchases.

Kind of Blue brought together seven now-legendary musicians in the prime of their careers: tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, pianists Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, drummer Jimmy Cobb and, of course, trumpeter Miles Davis.

If you are interested in modern jazz, the program is worth a listen. Unfortunately, the writer felt compelled to tell us, over and over again, how great the record is, something that should speak for itself when they treat each selection. Most of the information is hardly new, but it is nice to have it in one package, with the music as the background. Any certified jazz nerd knows that when Wynton Kelly showed up at the first of two sessions, he was irritated to find Bill Evans at the piano. Kelly had just replaced Evans in Miles' band. Kelly played on only one of the five tracks.

It is also well-known, but well worth repeating, that Evans was as much or even more responsible for the compositions as Davis was. Bill Evans was one of the prime geniuses of modern jazz, and if he got little share of the immense royalties from the disc, he ought at least to get credit for his input.

The best thing about the program is the many brief interviews. I had never heard Bill Evans actually talk before. It is also fascinating to hear how Miles' genius as leader worked.

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."

"Blue in Green" is one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of music that I have ever heard. Here is a clip of Miles Davis and John Coltrane playing "So What?", the first piece on Kind of Blue.


Here is a version of "All Blues," one of the compositions on KOB.

Miles Davis/All Blues/Live at the Plugged Nickel

This is no substitute for the original, but I have to say that just the resonance with the original makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Besides, this is very fine jazz work.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Page Three Odds & Ends

Roswell Rudd's ruddy trombone is a big part of the Avant Garde scene, or so I gather. I only recently discovered him, while crawling along the discography of Steve Lacy. I picked up Regeneration, a very interesting album with a very interesting cast. With Lacy's soprano sax on board, you would be expecting Page Four jazz. What you get is pretty straight Page Three bop. It's avant garde only in the squeaky, circus clown orchestra cum Thelonious monk sound of the instruments. I listened to it this afternoon while making out a test for my Constitutional Law students. It's very good jazz. There's a nice interview with Rudd at All About Jazz.

Here is a cut:
Roswell Rudd/2300 Skiddoo/Regeneration
In addition to Rudd and Lacy, the album features Misha Mengelberg on piano (really good piano), Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink on drums. Strong Dutch accent. The music is Monk and Herbie Nichols. Nichols, I gather, was a contemporary of Monk's.

As I said, this music is p3 jazz, more akin to actual Monk hardbop than to the free jazz for which these guys are known. For a lark, compare it to this piece by Miles Davis. This is one of Mile's albums that never got the recognition it deserves. Coltrane and Hank Mobley play tenor sax on the disc, with Wynton Kelley on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and both Jimmy Cobb and Philly Joe Jones on drums.
Miles Davis/Teo/Someday My Prince Will Come
Enjoy, and if you do, leave a comment and go on and buy the music. Regeneration is available on eMusic. The Miles disc is easy to come by.

What strikes me is the similar way the two bands explore the music, while doing so with very different sounds and moods.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Booker Ervin's Brilliant Bop

Booker Telloferro Ervin was one of those jazz geniuses who don't quite make it into the Borders Jazz section. But that's all the more fun for collectors. He recorded a number of albums titled with puns: Blues Book, Song Book, Freedom Book, and Space Book. A good jazz library will have all of them. It's all straight page three jazz, with lots of invention and soft, soul twisting song, punctuated with whirling virtuosity.

Here's a haunting melody from The Freedom Book.
Booker Ervin/A Day to Mourn/The Freedom Book
Jakie Byard on piano, Richard Davis on bass, and Alan Dawson on drums. Enjoy. And if you like it, do me the honor of commenting. Oh, and buy the disc. It's available on eMusic and at Barnes and Noble.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Big Bands, Small Combos, & Duets

The difference between big band jazz and the small combo (3 to 9 musicians) is analogous to the difference between a novel and a short story. In the former, the larger picture usually subsumes most of the individual elements, with the exception of a central character or two. The main character watches the rise and fall of a Louisiana tyrant who pulls all the other characters into orbit around him. The jazz version has a solo horn play against the theme provided by an orchestra. Here is an example: Art Pepper playing against an orchestra:
Art Pepper/Our Song/Winter Moon
In the latter, a handful of characters come into focus against one another. A lonely furniture salesman negotiates the transfer of an antique table from a wife, only to find out that a mistress wants it. In the jazz version, the main horn establishes himself against the rhythm section, and then encounters the other instruments one at a time. Listen to this cut by the Jimmy Giuffre 3:
The Jimmy Giuffre 3/Two Kinds of Blues/Hollywood and Newport Live
If my analogy is any good, let me propose that the jazz duet and solo album is analogous to poetry. Everything is cut down to the bare skeleton of story. Each word, or note, has to stand for a vast realm of things. Here is a cut from Mal Waldron's last album, a duet with Avant Guard sax man Archie Shepp. This is jazz distilled into its essence. Be amazed.
Archie Shepp & Mel Waldron/Everything Happens to Me/Left Alone Revisited
This was Waldron's final tribute to Billy Holiday. Sadness and beauty inscribed with brilliant economy.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lance Armstrong and Thelonious Monk

Armstronglook In bicycle racing legend it is now known as "the look." Lance Armstrong had been showing signs of fatigue for days when he and his rival Jan Ullrich fought out the tenth stage of the 2001 Tour de France. Ulrich had reacted to those signs by putting relentless pressure on Armstrong, and thus fatiguing himself. But no mortal and precious few Olympian deities could match Armstrong in an Alpine climb.

As the road began a steep rise toward the 21 switchback turns on the monstrous ascent of L'Alpe d'Huez, the rivals were no more than a half-wheel apart after two earlier climbs and hours in the saddle. Suddenly, Armstrong accelerated, opening a gap of about 10 yards.

Out of the saddle, his toes pointed down as he danced on the pedals, Armstrong suddenly slowed and looked over his left shoulder, his eyes fixed on Ullrich's face for four or five seconds, seemingly challenging his chief rival to match the bold move.

The German rider's eyes were shielded by sunglasses, but everything else about his expression showed despair. He jerked at his radio earpiece and grimaced as Armstrong lit the afterburners, roaring alone toward the peak.

Eight miles later, Armstrong had gained two huge minutes on the 1997 champion, sealing his third Tour victory before the three-week race was half over.

Sports Illustrated columnist Austin Murphy declared afterward that Armstrong's audacious stare "was exactly when cycling officially lost its status as a fringe sport in this country."

Armstrong's "fatigue" was, of course, partly strategy and all showmanship. It captures all that is great about a sport like cycling.

Monk2 Ok, it's a stretch, but I thought of this when reading about and listening to a legendary recording session at the Rudy Van Gelder studio in Hackensack, New Jersey, on Christmas Eve, 1954. Miles Davis was the leader, as usual. The band consisted of Thelonious Monk on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clark on drums. Miles was never an easy person to like, and he didn't make it any easier on Monk when he insisted that Monk not play behind his solos. It was rumored that Davis actually punched Monk, but that seems not to be true. Monk later said "Miles'd got killed if he had hit me."

Monk did as he was instructed, but during his solo on "The Man I Love," he played a brilliant joke on Miles. He was playing at a slower tempo, but in sync with the band, when he suddenly seemed to get lost. Here is how Loren Schoenberg puts it in The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz.

Monk feigns confusion with the double meter and then miraculously finds his place precisely at the point during the bridge where the lyrics refer to someone finding someone (Monk was known for his ironic and powerful sense of humor). He then proceeds to pile it on like gangbusters, without a spec of the "difficulty" he had before.

That is the jazz nerd's version of Armstrong's look. Of course, it may be that Monk was really confused, just as Armstrong may have really been close to collapse when he miraculously revived. But I hold, along with Aristotle, that poetry is truer than history, and I have given you the poetic versions of the two events. Both stories tell you more about genius and manly virtue than any demythologized version ever could.

Listen for yourself:

Miles Davis/The Man I Love (take 1)/Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Frank Morgan Remembered

Alto Sax player Frank Morgan died in 2007, just short of his 74th birthday. He was based in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, which is the largest urban area close to my home in South Dakota. So though I never heard Morgan play, I feel like he belongs to me.

His album Reflections (2000) is marvelous. Straight P3 jazz, with some major jazz men in attendance. Ron Carter plays bass and Joe Henderson joins with his tenor. It must have been one of Henderson's last gigs. Al Foster is on drums and Bobby Henderson on vibraphone. Mulgrew Miller play piano. This is perfect jazz: digging deep for all the ore that any melody promises, and then displaying it in a rainbow of bell tones. Bobby Henderson earned his keep on this one.

This makes me happy. Check out this selection:
Frank Morgan/Black Narcissus/Reflections
If you like it, you can get it on eMusic for pennies. Otherwise, look for it at Barnes and Noble.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Jazz & Accessibility 3

I got some great responses to my last post. I am responding to them here rather than in the comments section. Anon1 says this:
I can appreciate your 'Page One to Page Five Jazz' concept, but where would you classify Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus? For me, they both play bebop, but surely not very different from the music of Andrew Hill.
Ornette Coleman's "The shape of jazz to come" has tunes one can hum along to (Lonely Woman/Peace, thus bringing the start of free jazz into Page Three?
Excellent points. First, the five page accessibility scale should be applied to musical compositions rather than to musicians or albums. Any confusion on that part is my responsibility. A lot of the great hardboppers like Miles and Trane produce a long line of solid page three jazz before they became to experiment with the "new thing." Trane seems to have pretty much ended his career doing Page Four and Five jazz. Miles did it, and then went on to fusion. Likewise, Wayne Shorter's albums are mostly Page Three, but he does The All Seeing Eye, which is clearly Page Four. Nor is it that unusual to see solid P3 bop in one number and P4 in another. David Murray's Octet albums Ming and Home have both on them. But I think that the categories help sort out the differences. I could sell some of these songs to the strict hardbop fan, but he wouldn't be interested in others. The categories help. The case of Thelonious Monk is especially interesting. Many avant garde jazzmen were obsessed with Monk's music. But I think Monk wrote and performed solidly P3 music all the way. What Monk did that made him a God to players like Steve Lacy was to take the music apart in all sorts of creative ways. But Monk always put it back together again, and kept its concrete emotions intact. Monk played songs. He sang with his piano, and we can sing along.
A lot of Page Five Jazz misses me altogether (as does Dixieland), but I can enjoy someone like Anthony Braxton when he plays (bebop)tunes I am familiar with. Sometimes, I only appreciate/understand the more 'difficult' musicians when I listen on my i-pod to the same tune played by artists from different genres.
That is also an excellent point. Knowing the melody can help the listener navigate the racial interpretations of someone like Braxton. But that probably means that the music is P4 rather than P5. I also agree that a lot, if not almost all of P5 is incomprehensible. See my earlier post on Trane's Accension. I panned it. And that was the point of Anon2's note.
The last reminds me of my childhood red wagon, more specifically the left wheel on the rear axle, which, having enjoyed the special attention of a our local tom, squealed most loudly.
He is speaking of the Evan Parker number I posted. Yes, it does mostly sound like a sqeaking wheel. P5 jazz is by almost total absence of anything resembling a melody. That's surely going on here. Now I have come to enjoy a lot of jazz over the last year that I would not have been able to appreciate before. I am much more hesitant to rule anything completely out of bounds than I once was. It is possible that I would appreciate Evan Parker more if I actually played an instrument and knew music a lot better. But that is almost damning in itself. What's the point of music that only the musician and a handful of others can hear? Still, I did find some pleasure in following the winding and sqeaking of Parker's horn. If nothing else, he displays magnificient skill. But you won't be getting a lot of P5 jazz here. If there is a problem in my accessibility scheme, it lies in distinguishing between edgy P3 jazz and more melodic versions of P4. All I can say is this: ask whether the whole is more important than the parts, or vice versa. That will tell you whether it's P3 or P4. Here is a sample of good P4 jazz.
Steve Lacy with Don Cherry/Evidence/Evidence
This is Monk worship, to be sure. But I submit that abstraction here is not a device, as it was for Monk. It is the point.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Jazz & Accessibility 2: Andrew Hill & Evan Parker

Back last year I posted a piece on jazz and accessibility, and proposed a five part "accessibility scale" from A1 (most accessible) to A5 jazz. Since then I have been listening to a much wider range of jazz, and my own ear for the music has become considerably more flexible. But I think that my categories hold up pretty well, and I return to the project now. I will refer to them by the slightly more elegant terms: Page One to Page Five Jazz.

  1. Page One is jazz style with no or almost no improvisation going on. Think of Frank Sinatra or a lot of Ella Fitzgerald.
  2. Page Two is solid melody with improvisation providing a little entertainment in gaps. Think Diana Krall.
  3. Page Three is the heart of modern jazz: the improvisation is center stage, but the improvisation is strictly dedicated to milking the melody of every drop of beauty. Almost all bop falls into this category, with hardbop perhaps more loyal to the melody than classic bebop. In page three jazz, almost all the lines sound traditional and the instruments tend to be strictly familiar.
  4. Page Four jazz reverses the relation between improvisation and melody, with the latter only a launch pad or in many cases merely an excuse for the exploration of abstract musical ideas. The trend toward abstraction will often be evident even song titles like Part A, or Composition No. 45. Page Four jazz also includes a fondness for odd sounding instruments and playing around the extreme ends of the horns, with a lot of hysterical squealing. This is where avant garde or free jazz should be parked.
  5. Page Five leaves all familiar concepts like melody and coherent rhythms. There is definitely something like music going on there, but no human being could walk away humming the tune as there ain't no tune to hum. I was once quite contemptuous of this kind of jazz. I remain skeptical, but every now and then I find myself enjoying it.
I have been fond of hardbop jazz for at least for thirty years or more, but only recently, as I have indulged myself in a lot of jazz collecting, have I acquired a taste for pages four and five. I am very grateful to the jazz artists who have worked at this kind of music, because I think that it is sometimes great art and listening to it can enable one to hear more fundamental jazz better. But Pages Four and Five will always belong only to a very small audience.

Well, here are some samples to back up my text.

Page One Jazz
Ella Fitzgerald/I Got Rhythm/Ella Fitzgerald Sings the George and Ira Gershwin Songbook
Page Two Jazz
Diana Krall/Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me/Steppin' Out
Don't get the idea that there is anything wrong with Page One or Page Two jazz. I really like both of the above numbers.

Page Three Jazz
Tina Brooks/Star Eyes/Minor Move
Tina Brooks was another minor jazz genie who killed himself off before he could carve a large body of work. But Minor Move is a fine album, with a really good band: Lee Morgan (tp) Tina Brooks (ts) Sonny Clark (p) Doug Watkins (b) Art Blakey (d). There is a lot of Lee here, and this is straight ahead Page Three bop.

Page Four Jazz
Andrew Hill/Dedication/Point of Departure
Hill is a brilliant piano player and avant garde composer. Point of Departure should be in every jazz library. Kenny Dorham (tp) Eric Dolphy (alto sax, flute, bass clarinet) Joe Henderson (ts) Richard Davis (b) and Tony Williams (d). The ubiguitous Dolphy snorts and oogles his way under the line.

Page Five Jazz
Evan Parker/Haines Last Tape/The Snake Decides
And now for something completely different, try Evan Parker. The Snake Decides is a very difficult disc to come by, but I got it. Its solo horn twilight zone. I can't say I whistle this one on the way to work, but it does display a magnificent command of his instrument. There are moments when I spin this up on my iPod, put on the headphones, and sit inside Parker's horn. But only a few such moments. As one critic put it, his solo recordings "aren't for the sqeemish.

Well, that's the spectrum. Let me know what you think.