Friday, February 26, 2010

Monk, Solos, Duos, Avant Garde, Hard Bop, and Martinis

It's stream of consciousness time here at Jazz Note.  I am digesting a little new music by Noah Preminger, John Surman, Dave King, and Tom Varner.  But I am not ready to post on any of that.  Instead, I feel like returning to a handful of occasional them and letting them bleed into one another.  

First: jazz solos and duets.  Solo albums are the jazz version of a dry martini joke.  Pour in the gin, whisper "vermouth," over the angled glass and push it across the mahogany.  If a jazz man isn't playing the piano or recording multiple tracks, it's hard to lay down anything for the listener to glide on.  Only the raw ideas are expressed, leaving the listener to supply his or her own blues and swing.  For that reason the solo recording can be as rewarding as it is demanding.  You ain't gonna make it rich that way.  

Here's an example of Steve Lacy playing Monk's 'Evidence'.  Lacy is an avant garde master who was devoted to the soprano sax exclusively and Monk, well, a whole lot.  The recording is from a relatively obscure album, the obscurity being no mystery.  But I think you will dig it if you give it a chance.  You are nowhere but in the horn on this one. 
Steve Lacy/Evidence/5 X Monk 5 X Lacy
The duet can be as laconic as the solo even when a piano is included, especially if the piano player is Mal Waldron.  Lacy and Waldron recorded a lot of records together and everyone of them is a work of dynamic genius.  
Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron/Epistrophy/At the Bimhuis 1982
This is distilled love: Lacy and Waldron for one another and both for Monk.  Waldron plays with a percussive style, just as Monk did; but no one would mistake Waldron for Monk here.  I love how the piano's insistent beating constantly invites the next note from Lacy's horn.  

Another horn/piano duet that probably isn't on your iPod is Chris Potter and Kenny Werner's album.  I don't know Werner, but I don't think of avant garde when I think of Chris Potter.  This treatment of the same song as above is altogether different: faster and fuller in sound.  I like it a lot.  
Chris Potter and Kenny Werner/Epistrophy/Concord Duo Series, Vol. 10
All of that gives you a pretty good idea of what a jazz solo and duo can do with a Monk tune.  But I can't let this one go without a fuller treatment for contrast.  In 1964 Monk recorded a live album at the It Club in San Francisco.  I only picked it up recently, but it is a four star document.  Charlie Rouse plays tenor, Larry Gales bass, and Ben Riley drums.  Wow is this double CD good! 
Thelonious Monk/Evidence/Live at the It Club
And here is a little inside information from yours truly.  Over the course of several decades I have majored in philosophy and minored in jazz.  Both of these courses of study have allowed me to fall in love with other men, with no exchange of bodily fluids.  Infection nonetheless occurred.  I have been in love with Plato for a long time, and with Thelonious Monk for a good ten years.  Listening to the It Club recording meant falling in love all over again. 

Saturday, February 20, 2010

NY AG by the Rob Garcia 4

In case there are any anxious and irritated music industry executives reading this blog, here's how it works.  I am in my kitchen, cleaning up the mess I made cooking burritos.  I boiled the beef chuck in a crock pot for about six hours, then shredded and fried it, then reconstituted it with the bullion from the crock...  Well, never mind that.  Lots of pots and pans to load into the Kitchen Aid.  I dock my iPod and listen to Ken Laster's most recent In the Groove podcast. 

Then the piano starts, followed by a drum solo.  I am half listening, half scraping.  My beagle is very interested in what I am doing.  Then the horns and piano come back in.  It does that avant garde thing to me.  I start dancing in the kitchen like the Frankenstein monster trying to take his first steps.  Picture the monster with an aluminum bowl in one hand and a scouring pad in the the other, with a dog at his feet.  The horn has me in its possession. 

I keep listening and cleaning until Ken comes on and identifies the album.  It is Perennial, by the Rob Garcia 4.  As soon as I have that bit of information, I walk briskly and un-Frankenstein-like to my study.  I sit down and purchase the album.  That, dear record company executive, is how this works. 

Perennial is very fine jazz.  Garcia plays drums.  Noah Preminger's tenor is pied piper mesmerizing.  Dan Tepfer's piano is exquisite.  Chris Lightcap plays a fine bass.  Jazz is alive in New York.  Keep it alive by buying this record.  Here is a cut:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Rare Blythe

One of my frequent pet peeves is the unavailable status of so many jazz CDs.  I understand that some CDs sell only a few hundred or even a few dozen copies, and that it doesn't make economic sense to print more of them.  But how much can it cost to make a copy available on iTunes or eMusic or CD Universe or Amazon?  Surely at some point it becomes virtually free to distribute, and a few pennies here or there is better than nothing.  But of these venues, only eMusic has a really rich collection of otherwise unavailable jazz.  

On the other hand, it is exciting to find something rare that one is looking for.  One example of a CD that I spent a lot of time tracking down is Arthur Blythe's Night Song.  Blythe's alto has been pretty well represented on the pages of this blog.  His 1978 magnum opus, Lenox Avenue Breakdown, wasn't all that easy to find when I first went looking for it.  It's one of the great statements of avant garde jazz.  But on eMusic was able to get superb slices of Blythe: Focus, Blythe Bite, Retrospection, and three Chico Freeman albums prominently featuring Blythe: Luminous, The Unspoken Word, and Focus.  All of these are fine documents.  

But Night Song, which I set after due to the four star rating in the Penguin Guide, eluded me until now.  I finally did find a used copy for a reasonable price from one of Amazon's independent vendors.  In fairness, there are reasons for the obscurity of the disc.  The label, Clarity Recordings, is obscure enough.  The insert art looks like it was produced by a Bible Bookstore publisher. 

One of the things that Blythe likes is to put a lot of unusual percussion instruments behind him.  This gives his music a pronounced African flavor, but island African more than mainland African.  This is pretty evident on his Focus, which is one of my favorite albums.  His fanciful moods are somewhat reminiscent of Wayne Shorter's compositions, but again more voodoo than Dracula's castle.  

Night Song was recorded at the First Unitarian Church of Berkeley (where else?) in 1996.  Bob Stewart plays tuba, Gust Tsillis marimba and vibes, and Chico Freeman, God bless him, is there on bass clarinet and percussion.  Also on percussion are Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Josh Jones, and David Frazier.  The liner notes are grand, including an interview with Blythe and Freeman.  I am tempted to drop the whole damn thing in my drop box, but I will resist the temptation.  But here are three good samples.  If you like them, demand the whole thing from your favorite vendor.  And pick up the above mentioned discs.  You won't regret getting to know Arthur Blythe.
Night Song

Cause of It All


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Coltrane 57

On the last day of May, 1957, John Coltrane recorded his first session as leader. Six out of the seven takes were released as Coltrane, not to be confused with the 1962 album of the same title.  The last cut, 'I hear a Rhapsody,' would wind up on the hodgepodge Lush Life. Here's the line-up and song list, from the essential Jazz Discography Project

Johnny Splawn (tp -1/4) John Coltrane (ts) Sahib Shihab (bars -1,3,4) Mal Waldron (p -1/3) Red Garland (p -4/7) Paul Chambers (b) Albert Heath (d) Rudy Van Gelder Studio, Hackensack, NJ, May 31, 1957
1. Straight Street
2. While My Lady Sleeps
3. Chronic Blues
4. Bakai
5. Violets For Your Furs
6. Time Was
7. I Hear A Rhapsody
The great Prestige session with the Davis Quintet were behind him, but he probably looked to everyone like a great sideman with a chance to come into his own.  Coltrane was not yet his moment, but it is very solid hard bop and Trane's brilliant sound, all his own, is on fully display here.  There is just no other horn in jazz that ever opened up the same space or achieved the same velvety rich emotional texture.  

Mal Waldron plays on the first three numbers, and Red Garland thereafter.  Waldron would prove to be the genius, but I think that Garland's work on this album is superior.  

The highlight of the album, and what sets is apart from rest of the work in the Fearless Leader Box, is Sahib Shihab on  baritone sax.  Trane would later deploy a lot of low horns, especially on his Africa Brass Sessions.  I wish he had done more of that here, for the effect is electrifying.  This is especially evident on 'Bakai'.  

But here is the best cut from the May 31st session.  It is a straightforward blues, and Shihab lets it rip with his opening solo.  Trane follows, his notes climbing on top of one another in contrast to Shihab's serial blows on the baritone.  Splawn's solo is the least impressive.  He plays as if he thinks he's supposed to be keeping some kind of secret, but that's not so bad for by then the secret is out.  Waldron turns the dial back up by dissecting the melody into chunks, and the chunks into individual notes.  Each little section rings like a sweet bell tone.  I love this cut, if you can't tell. 
Chronic Blues
Coltrane 57 is well worth having your Trane set.  If you don't have it, I highly recommend the Fearless Leader box.  It is the best presentation of Coltrane' s work before he really comes into his own with Giant Steps.  The single recording is also available from eMusic for 6 credits.  

Enjoy.  Purchase.  Drop me a line. 

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Coltrane's Interplay Box

The three box sets of John's Coltrane's Prestige recordings are treasure troves for jazz fans.  The largest and best by far is Fearless Leader.  If you have that one, you have most of Trane's early albums as leader.  Side Steps and Interplay contain Trane's work as a side man and double listed albums, respectively. 

Tonight I have been listening to Interplay, which just arrived in the mail.  Two of the sessions included in the box were one that I have been long familiar with.  I had a double LP that included Cats, with Tommy Flanagan as leader, and Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane.  I think that the former, like Flanagan's piano, has always been unfairly reviewed.  Flanagan was all heart, and he was a great partner behind a lot of Kenny Burrell recordings.  Here is one that has long been a favorite of mine. Burrell is here, along with Idrees Sulieman on trumpet, Doug Watkins on bass, and Louis Hayes on drums.  It was recorded in 1959, which might have been the single most magnificent year in the history of jazz. 
Minor Mishap
A recording I didn't have was Cattin' with Coltrane and Quinichette.  I don't know Paul Quinichette.  I think that the interplay between the two tenors is well worth listening to.  The incomparable Mal Waldron is on piano, Julian Euell on bass, and Ed Thigpen on drums.  Here is a sample:
It is interesting to note something about the metaphysics of jazz criticism.  Both of these recordings are solid jazz, and if they had been recorded by some minor league daimon of jazz, they would be justly praised.  But because Trane is playing on them they get compared to the Genesis and Romans of his old and new testaments, and are found wanting.  There is nothing wrong with that, it's just interesting.  If you are a Coltranist, as I surely am, you want to know the whole Bible. 

I am thinking about listening to the Trane corpus chronologically, and posting on that experience.  No promises, but if I do it you can read about it here. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wayne Shorter's Footprints & Aung San Suu Kyi

Last Sunday I had the chance to roam around Sioux Falls, and stopped at the Last Chance CD Shop.  Or was it the Last Stop?  Anyway, it was one of those rare places trading in used pieces of circular plastic pregnant with signal: CDs, DVDs, and video games.

I didn't expect much, so I was pleasantly surprised to find cheap copies of Sam Rivers' Dimensions and Extensions, and Wayne Shorter's Footprints Live!.  I am still not sure about Rivers, a substantial figure in avant garde jazz.  

I am a little bit embarrassed to admit that I didn't already own a copy of Footprints Live!, claiming as I do the post of high priest in the cult of Shorter.  See my Guide to Wayne Shorter and Guide to Wayne Shorter 2.  The links to the samples don't work yet, as I haven't replaced them with files.  I'll try to get to that this week.  

Anyway, I drove back to Aberdeen through a nightmarish snow and the next day was a snow day.  Instead of teaching class, I found myself in my study at home, listing to Shorter's 2001 show.  The music blended perfectly with the shadows in the room and the whiteout conditions visible through my window.  It gave me the same warm feeling deep down where I live that the cup of hot tea was giving my belly (deep down where I live).  Both Wayne and his music still make that essential offer: common, he said, I'll give ya shelter from the storm.  

Footprints Live! is a wonderful recording.  Danilo Perez plays piano.  I don't know him, musically speaking.  But I know and have blogged on John Patitucci who plays bass, and I know Brian Blade.  The band is exquisite, laying down a subtle and deeply sensitive background for Wayne's playing.  The old man, meanwhile, has that heart that lives in a horn.  Every line is a meditation on some romantic and more or less supernatural landscape in his Gothic imagination.  Two of my favorite Shorter compositions are on it: 'Footprints', of course, and 'Juju'.

There is also a tribute to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.  For anyone who doesn't know, Suu is the hero of the Burmese Democracy movement.  Burma suffers under one of the worst gangster regimes.  Suu has been under house arrest for decades, and goes for long periods without outside contacts.  She is also a Buddhist, which is probably among the reasons that Shorter and I were drawn to her.  At her website you will find the admonition: "please use your liberty to promote ours."  There are worse things than slick roads and poor visibility.  

Here is Wayne's tribute:
Aung San Suu Kyi

Friday, February 5, 2010

Tom Varner Sells Me a CD

Last October I posted a review of Tom Varner's The Window Up Above: American Songs 1770-1998. Varner channels avant garde jazz through the French horn, which might be illegal in some states.  His songbook is full of rich interpretations of traditional American melodies that accomplish the basic purpose of avant garde: expanding the original genius of the music along hitherto unsuspected dimensions.  It is a magnificent album. 

I didn't notice until recently that Tom himself left a comment to that post:
thank you! got a new one out, too--you'd like it--- a tentet, "Heaven and Hell" has lots of info---- thanks for the listen, ken! best tom varner
I was excited and flattered to see this gracious comment.  This is the first time that a jazz artist has responded to one of my reviews.  I thought it only reasonable that I should obtain Varner's new CD, so I ordered it from Amazon, along with the new Dave King recording (free shipping!) that reader Will mentioned.  If I haven't accomplished anything else with this blog, I am selling music to myself.  

Tonight I have been listening to Varner's The Mystery of Compassion.  It is a delightful production from ink to beat.  I love the cover and the album title.  The list of song titles turns the music into a series of Zen koans: 'How Does Power Work?', 'Death at the Right Time', '$1000 Hat'.  The music ranges from solid bop to intense avant garde wailing.  Tom is no ordinary composer.  

You can get it for few dimes from eMusic.  Tell 'em I sent ya.  I'll let you know about Heaven and Hell when it gets here. 

Kenneth Caldwell Blanchard Sr. 1923-2010

My father passed away on January 27th.  As a practitioner of  Zen Buddhism, I suppose I will have to begin celebrating that day in the future, as that is what Buddhists generally do.  There is a kind of appealing symmetry in replacing the birthday with the day of passing.  

My father had enormous reserves of good humor, love, and devotion.  He served in the Pacific in World War II, along with three of his brothers.  One of these heroes of the Republic, my Uncle Bill, did not make it back.  Dad lived life on his own terms.  He was one of those people who genuinely liked nearly everyone he met, and as a result everyone who knew him was better off for it.  Dad was not a jazz fan.  In fact, he had a tin ear.  But he would have been amused to know that I am eulogizing him on this blog.  

It only occurred to me tonight that Dad was born a couple of months after the great bop piano player Red Garland.  So I decided to offer this post on Garland and John Coltrane in my father's honor.  Garland was part of one of the most famous rhythm sections in modern jazz, playing behind Miles Davis and John Coltrane in Miles' first great quintet.  He recorded a number of fine albums as leader, including four with Coltrane: High Pressure, Dig It!, Soul Junction, and All Morning Long

Here is a sample from the last in the list.  Donald Byrd plays trumpet, George Joyner bass, and Art Taylor drums.  It is a bit longer than the samples I usually include, but this is a special post. This recording was made, as it happens, a few months after yours truly arrived on the scene. 
Red Garland Quintet/All Morning Long
My readers will know that I offer these samples to illustrate my criticism and to encourage them to obtain the recordings.  My old file sharing service,, expired without warning and I have switched to a new one, dropbox.  Unfortunately, all the older links are now useless.  

But here is a very useful tip: the above recordings are part of a box set of Coltrane recordings, Side Steps.  You can get this collection of Trane's work as a sideman very cheaply from two sources.  One is eMusic.  The other is Hastings, which is letting it go for $19.99.  That is a steal. Pick it up at Hastings.  You get the booklet and photos. 

And here is another offering from a Coltrane box set: The Classic Quartet: The Complete Impulse! Studio Recordings.   It is from the album First Meditations, recorded in 1965 (John Coltrane (ss, ts) McCoy Tyner (p) Jimmy Garrison (b) Elvin Jones (d)).  Again, in my Father's honor:
So the Zen patriarch was watching a flock of ducks fly overhead.  After they were gone he turned to a monk and asked: "What happened to the flippin' ducks?"  The monk answered "they have flown away."  The patriarch reached over and twisted the monk's nose good and hard.  "Shit!," he cried, "why did you do that?"  The old man replied: "how could they possibly have flown away?"  

Commentary: the only ducks that there ever are are the ducks that are here.  There is no such thing as a duck that has flown away.