Thursday, August 31, 2006

Legends on the side

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers have been on my mind, and my CD player, the last couple weeks as I've been reading Alan Goldsher's "Hard Bop Academy," which I finished this week. Goldsher didn't write a book about Blakey, although there's plenty about the legendary drummer and band leader in it. He focused instead on the Messengers' sidemen over the decades, a list which, of course, reads like a who's who of jazz luminaries. (On trumpet, take your pick of Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, Woody Shaw, Wynton Marsalis or Terence Blanchard, among others. Sax Jackie McLean, Hank Mobley, Benny Golson, Wayne Shorter, Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison and more. Piano, Horace Silver, Keith Jarrett, Bobby Timmons, Mulgrew Miller, Cedar Walton ... you get the idea.)

Goldsher basically acted as a facilitator to get these guys to talk about each other, the Messengers legacy and playing for Blakey. It makes for a quick, enjoyable read that reminds me of "Loose Balls," Terry Pluto's fun book about the wild and crazy days of the American Basketball Association.

Among the things I found interesting, Blakey wanted talented guys young, or at least not yet big names, and when they got old enough or big enough, he booted them out, sometimes even if they wanted to stay, and brought in somebody new. Part of it was to keep salaries in line, sure, but part of it was his conception of the Messengers as a training ground for great jazz musicians, composer-arrangers and band leaders. Part of it also was that a steady infusion of new guys (and for awhile a gal, Joanne Brackeen on piano, which in my mind says a lot about Art Blakey) kept him challenged and kept the band constantly fresh.

I was listening to a couple prime examples as I wrote this, "Album of the Year," Timeless Records, and "Keystone 3," Concord. These are 1981 and '82 dates with guys like the Marsalis brothers, Blanchard, Harrison and Bobby Watson and I swear the music is just as vibrant as a classic like "Moanin'" with Morgan, Golson and Timmons in 1958. "Duck Soup" and "Soulful Mr. Timmons" on "Album of the Year" are, like so much Messenger stuff, loaded with incredible ensemble play and memorable solos and I think "In Walked Bud" and "In a Sentimental Mood" on "Keystone 3" rate with any version of either standard that I've heard. "In a Sentimental Mood," in fact, is an extremely clever recasting of the song, no less so than Archie Shepp's avant-garde version on "Live in San Francisco," Impulse, a favorite of mine. "Waterfalls" on Keystone 3 makes you understand why Wynton Marsalis created such a stir when he came on the scene.

My buddy Carl Abernathy will tell you there's no such thing as a bad Jazz Messengers album and I'm inclined to agree. Art Blakey, Abdullah Ibn Buhaina to his friends, made sure of that.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Finding Bill Evans

My buddy Carl Abernathy got me thinking about Bill Evans the other day and why he prompts an almost religious devotion from fans and students of piano (Evans, not Carl, although his fans are certainly devoted as well). Then I spied the newer (2005) "Bill Evans: The Complete Village Vanguard Recordings, 1961," Riverside, at the bookstore and sprung for it, which hasn't made me a convert (I already admired the guy, within reason) but has shifted my perspective on him some.

What strikes me, listening to these three CDs from a very famous trio session, is how cleanly Evans plays, with no hint really of the bawdy house or dance hall, the blues, rag or stride cutting contests, what some folks (not me) might consider "lower" forms of music in the jazz family tree. Now whether this means his music is jazz infused with European classicism, as many people say, I don't know. In my mind, the thing that stands out is his huge technical proficiency. I think he sounds so pristine not because of the classical elements he uses but because he was just that good.

I contrast him with Monk, no slouch as a pianist but not nearly as clean, probably intentionally so at times, and a step or three ahead in at-the-keyboard creativity (and as a composer). Evans, on the other hand, is plenty inventive, more so I'd venture to say than a lot of top-drawer jazz pianists, and that, I think, combined with his Horowitiz-like command of his instrument, is what has focused so much attention on him. I'll take Monk first, Art Tatum and maybe Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner after, but Evans would be the fifth if I were allowed disks from only five pianists on the desert island. (Actually, I would refuse to go if they let me have only five. Like I'm going anywhere without Fats Waller, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, or Keith Jarrett for that matter.)

The redone sound on the Evans "Vanguard" set, which has been widely available in various configurations before, including the landmark "Sunday Morning at the Village Vanguard" and "Waltz for Debby" CDs, is spiffy by the way. You hear everything super clearly right down to the occasional glass clink. One thing that does is really bring out the playing of bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian. LaFaro, who died two weeks later in a car crash, in particular is as proficient as Evans and often as stunning. Interesting that the liner notes say they didn't get along personally. They sure did musically.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Who dat?

Say man, is that Miles Davis rollin' with the muted trumpet on "Secret Love" from "Get the Message" on the Drive Archive record label? Nope, the guy with the sound is Chuck Mangione during his short stint with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. He wrote three of the songs on the CD as well. And then there's the pianist, who rips off some lively solos of his own and plays his piano strings like an ersatz harp at one point, which I bet had Art Blakey shaking his head. Keith Jarrett. A nifty disk.

Hard bop defined

Hard bop is one of those "know it when I hear it" kind of things for me. I don't know a good definition for it. I don't know if there even is one. If there is, I haven't seen it, yet. I think it would include bebop phrasing and flourishes (see Benny Golson's soloing on the Blue Note Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers classic "Moanin'") but feel funkier, more syncopated, with harder edges and heavier aurally, and with more prominent swing and blues elements, among other things. If a good bebop performance can amaze and delight, a good hard bop performance can awe and excite.

Like "Moanin'" the title track on the Blakey and Messengers CD, of which you get two standout versions on recent issues of the disk. Either version of the song, written by pianist Bobby Timmons and refined in this case by Golson, has to be considered a seminal jazz performance and prime example of what hard bop is. "Moanin'" probably explains it better than hanging words on it can.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Perspective would be nice

Maynard Ferguson's death turned up as one of the top stories (from CNN, as I recall) on my Google home page yesterday and it kind of annoyed me for a couple reasons.

Nothing against Maynard Ferguson. I've said in the past he deserves more props for the fine jazz he recorded and less abuse for some of his more commercial ventures. Sad then that in pretty much every obit I saw he was referred to as the guy who covered the theme from "Rocky" and had a big hit with it.

Bugs me as well that Jackie McLean or John Hicks didn't show up on my Google home page when they died earlier this year, which is a measure of the media attention their deaths received. McLean in particular was a far more significant figure in American music than Ferguson (yeah, yeah, I know he was from Canada; he didn't get famous playing in Saskatoon). That's true not only because of McLean's music and his prominent role in jazz history but his educational endeavors and the impact of his many students.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

As good as sex, really

Interesting Wired interview with a guy who studies music's effect on the brain. He's found, among other things, that music activates the same parts of the brain and the same brain chemical mix as things like having an orgasm, eating chocolate and winning a big poker hand.

Heck, I could have told him that. Happens every time I put on "Root Down: Jimmy Smith Live!" from Verve and listen to Jimmy Smith play "Root Down (and Get It)."

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

More Sonny in London

I'm liking the "Sonny Rollins Live in London" series from British Harkit Records and covering a month's performances in 1965 by Mr. Rollins at Ronnie Scott's muy famoso jazz club in London, where he performed with pianist Stan Tracey's trio, a pretty much legendary outfit on the island. The sound isn't fantastic (the drums are a little heavy on Volume 2 as I listen to it, for instance) but it isn't terrible and you can make out everything the saxophonist is doing, which is a lot. Nothing on the second disk clocks in under 10 minutes and he goes 20 on a calypso-tinged rendition of "Night and Day."

Mr. Rollins has clearly gotten comfortable with the Tracey unit here, and the Brits with him, more than on the first volume, where they don't seem quite as together. He's particularly inventive on nearly 18 minutes built on Gershwin's "Foggy Day," which also includes a nice run by bassist Rick Laird. Monk's "Nutty" toes closer to the line of the original, but then it was pretty inventive to start with. The version of "Autumn Nocturne" is different than any of the other versions from Sonny Rollins I've heard and a classic example of his on-the-spot creating in concert. There's a third volume "Live in London" and I think it's in my future.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Swedish roots music

I bought the disk "Lars-Göran Ulander Trio Live at the Glenn Miller Cafe," on the Swedish Ayler label, after reading that Ulander (on alto here) had been kind of the Coleman Hawkins to Swedish free jazz saxophonist Mats Gustafsson's Sonny Rollins.

Gustafsson, known for his work with Ken Vandermark, has been an interest of mine since I caught him with his group The Thing and guest Joe McPhee last year. He's on the Albert Ayler end of the free jazz spectrum as opposed to early Ornette Coleman, which wasn't all that out there. But I don't think that means he's inaccessible. I might say the same about Ulander, whose trio on the Ayler CD includes drummer Palle Danielsson and bassist Paal Nilssen-Love, the former another legendary Swede and the latter himself a member of The Thing (and one of the most manic, attacking drummers I've ever seen, although he's fairly subdued in this session).

"Tabula Raasa G.M.C." has kind of a Middle Eastern motif, while "Intrinsic Structure I" feels more like European classical music with Coleman-like snatches and great interplay between Ulander and Danielsson. The songs are freely improvised, but to my ear could hardly be considered unstructured, illogical, or slapdash in any way. "What Love" starts out like a conventional ballad before venturing into territory you couldn't have anticipated from that beginning. And this, perhaps, is what I appreciate most about the disk. You never know what's around the corner, making for something of a voyage of musical discovery, which I suspect is how the musicians felt about it as well. Lots of corners to go around and a concomitant number of surprises, too, in something like "Ionizacion-Variaciones E.V.," which last nearly 23 minutes.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Hot stuff

Sonny Rollins wanted to get people thinking about a serious topic on "Global Warming," Milestone, as a read of his poetic liner notes tells you, but the disk also includes two songs by Mr. Rollins that inevitably are great tonic when I'm feeling low. "Island Lady" is another in his line of joyous calypso-style pieces with some creative exploring by the saxophonist. Likewise on the title track, one of my all-time Sonny Rollins favorites. Both feature, in addition, strong solo work by trombonist Clifton Anderson and pianist Stephen Scott.

I put Scott in the same class as Mark Soskin as far as pianists who seem to fit best with Mr. Rollins go, the two just a small step down from Tommy Flanagan at the head of the list. Scott is Monkish on "Echo-side Blue," where Mr. Rollins' playing, it seems to me, is close to being on par with his famous rendering of "Blue 7" on "Saxophone Colossus." Meanwhile, "Mother Nature's Blues" makes me think of those magic Sonny Rollins concert moments when the flow of ideas from his horn drives the guys playing with him to respond in kind. A CD comfortably ensconced in my Sonny Rollins Top 10.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Back for seconds

For another helping of the tasty combination that is tenorman Lin Halliday, multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan and pianist Jodie Christian, all three guys I think should be better known, try "Where or When," Delmark. On "My Shining Hour," you get strong solos from Halliday, Sullivan on a muted trumpet and Christian, who strikes me as McCoy Tyner-like in this instance. Ditto with respect to Christian and Tyner on "Dear Old Stockholm," which also features complex playing by Halliday.

He does some bluesy blowing on Ellington's "Sophisticated Lady," giving it a little different spin, and there's wonderful interplay between the saxophonist and Sullivan on "Over the Rainbow" (boffo version) and on Sonny Rollins' "Pent-up House." Excellent bassist Larry Gray worked the date as well, although he stays pretty much in the background. He does stand out a little on the title track, where Sullivan adds a second tenor sax to good effect on top of his trumpet and flugelhorn work elsewhere.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I wouldn't want to live without...

Sonny Rollins playing "Someone to Watch Over Me" on "Here's to the People," Milestone, among other things. Nice version of "Why was I Born," a song Mr. Rollins clearly has an affinity for, as well. A couple cuts with a young Roy Hargrove on trumpet also make this a CD worth having.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

More Sonny Rollins with pipes

"First Moves," Jazz Door, is another place to hear Sonny Rollins and jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley working together. Better yet, I believe Mr. Rollins was in an exploratory mood for this European concert in 1974 and, as you would expect, that yields some interesting music. The sound on what I think is probably a bootleg recording is adequate, a lot better than most impromptu concert recordings.

Harley checks in with his bagpipes on "Alfie's Theme" and while I don't think it's quite as effective as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" on the Milestone disk "The Cutting Edge" it works. If you get "Alfie's Theme" and "Alfie's Theme Differently" on the Impulse CD of the movie score by Mr. Rollins, this is "Alfie's Theme" really differently. Harley also plays some soprano sax (he was a saxophonist before picking up the pipes), as does Mr. Rollins, who waxes avant-garde on "Look for the Silver Lining." The generally rockish electric guitar playing from Yoshiaki Masuo is consistently good. Gene Perla on electric bass and David Lee round out a fusion-oriented ensemble well.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Easy listening, in a good way

"Easy Living," Milestone, is another Sonny Rollins CD I ought to play more, a modernist session from 1977, kind of Sonny Rollins meets Weather Report, not that it really sounds like the latter and unlike the former, with George Duke on keyboards and Tony Williams drumming, along with electric guitar and bass players.

Aside from the different style of accompaniment for Mr. Rollins, the cool version of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely" elevates this disk, as does Mr. Rollins performing "My One and Only Love," as a pretty ballad, in a rare turn on the soprano sax, which he also plays apace to great effect on "Aroz Con Pollo." Back on tenor, the title track sports yet another memorable improvised solo introduction by the master, ala "Autumn Nocturne" on "Don't Stop the Carnival," Milestone.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Saxofonistas passing

I count 21 renditions of "All the Things You Are" in my iTunes music library, which is to say you better be a player if you want to get my attention with the song. Tenorman Lin Halliday, who sometimes reminds me of Sonny Rollins in his flights from melody, and pianist Jodie Christian do on Halliday's "East of the Sun," Delmark, an CD I took a flier on (didn't know a thing about Halliday) after reading about it on the Brazilian jazz Web log jazzseen, kind of.

OK, jazzseen is in Portuguese and I can read a little Spanish and French but no Portuguese. I was attracted by the cover photo, however, Halliday looking like he's seen a lot of bad road and clutching the only thing keeping him going, his horn. And if I don't read Portuguese, I recognized the names Coleman Hawkins and Anthony Braxton in the text; intriguing combination. Then there's the description of Halliday in the rough translation of the text by Google, "one of these saxofonistas strangers who pass incognitos for all, smile to the life and die without ostentation." Good enough for me.

The presence of the severely underexposed Ira Sullivan on this consistently excellent disk also suggests it, whether it's Sullivan playing bass flute (oops, alto flute as Marc Berner points out in an e-mail) on the title track, the trumpet on "I Found a New Baby," the flugelhorn on "Corcovado," or adding a second tenor sax in spots for good measure. What a talent. He, Halliday and Christian, who also should be better known, mesh with near perfection on "Corcovado." Halliday's soloing on "My Foolish Heart" is gripping. I want more.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Experience counts

A drone, as if from an organ or bagpipes, as the canvas on which to paint music from a flute and other horns, including splashes of brass, music that sounds orchestral and at the same time like a Scottish folk piece and is decorated with bells and chimes, gradually rising in pace and intensity as bass and drums kick in until it's, yes, jazz by the end. Then the band switches to a funk romp with Detroit and New Orleans as anchor points and punctuated by, among other things, a penny whistle and a police siren. Followed by a jazz waltz punched up using the judicious insertion of free jazz elements.

"Prayer for Jimbo Kwesi," "Funky Aeco" and "Walking in the Moonlight" from "The Third Decade," ECM, by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I figure they must have decided to employ everything they learned in the first two decades because the fascinating music just keeps coming. A rare gem even for this group of diamond merchants.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Hank Williams it's not

The crew on Hank Garland's "Jazz Winds from a New Direction" is as elegantly proficient as the Modern Jazz Quartet, Garland and his guitar replacing John Lewis and the piano, and Gary Burton (all of 17 here) on vibes, bassist Joe Benjamin and Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck's drummer of choice, matching the troika of Jackson, Heath and Kay. I really get an MJQ feeling on "All the Things You Are" and the Burton-Garland song "Three-Four, the Blues."

I wish Garland had taken more solo space throughout, as he does on "Move," where his nimble fingers suggest Charlie Parker playing guitar, and the jazzy-bluesy rendering of Irving Berlin's "Always." I also wish he'd made more jazz recordings. A country music and Nashville stalwart, he was crippled in a near-fatal car accident in 1961, the same year "Jazz Winds" came out, struggled to return to form and never recorded a jazz session again.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Lindberg puts out a spread

Tenorman Allan Lunsdtröm, one of the saxophonists with Swedish pianist Nils Lindberg on "Curbits," the first cut from Lindberg's "Sax Appeal & Trisection," Dragon, plays with the sweetness of Stan Getz and it isn't the only thing that makes the cut interesting. There are solos from Lars Gullin, the Swedish baritonist who rates with Pepper Adams in my book, and the great Swedish alto saxman Rolf Billberg. Moreover, the song is based on a Swedish folk tune undoubtedly familiar to many a jazz fan. It provided the structure for "Dear Old Stockholm."

Wonderful stuff and the CD never lets up from there, presenting Swedish legend Lindberg and his music in settings ranging from a quintet to a big band, mostly with standout Swedish musicians, although Idrees Sulieman slips in on trumpet. Largely swinging bop and hard bop that shows off the technical prowess (the "Birth of the Cool" band didn't have anything over on these guys) of the Swedes and makes for a Swedish jazz smörgåsbord.

Monday, August 07, 2006

I should exit as graciously

"Yeah, but it's been a great gig."

What Dizzy Gillespie said when the 4-year-old daughter of a friend asked him if he was dying about 10 days before he did.

I love that story from "Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie" by Donald Maggin, a book I can recommend, although it could have used a discography.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lament for Rufus of Philly

originally uploaded by mrgreg.
I'm listening to my entire Sonny Rollins collection ahead of his Sept. 19 concert here. (Hey, it's going to take awhile to cover all of it.) Wednesday, it was "The Cutting Edge," Milestone, a live performance recording from Montreux in 1974 that's good, but not one of his best in my view. What strongly suggests it nonetheless is "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" featuring Mr. Rollins dueting with jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley. It's amazing how well the pairing worked and a tribute to the skill of both guys.

Sadly, I read yesterday that Rufus Harley passed away this week. I know some traditional bagpipers didn't like the attention he got at bagpipe competitions, Scottish festivals and the like. Some jazz snots didn't much like him either. But he was a legitimate musician, whether piping or playing jazz, and by all accounts a good soul.

Over lunch yesterday, I listened to "Dancing in the Dark," Milestone, a 1987 session with Mark Soskin on electric keyboards and one of those CDs I should listen to more often. Mr. Rollins is powerful on this and his improvisations, while fairly short for the most part, are quite creative. I've got a major thing for his version of the pop tune "Just Once." If you consider Tommy Flanagan the gold standard for pianists accompanying Sonny Rollins, Soskin isn't far off.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Bop lives

Dizzy Gillespie biographer Donald Maggin did an unscientific survey and decided that more than 50 percent of jazz artists playing today still use predominantly bebop forms, which seems about right to me. Modal music is harder to play and less accessible on its face, the popularity of "Kind of Blue" aside. Avant-garde, freely improvised jazz is an even tougher nut to crack on both counts. Likewise the fusion sprung from Miles Davis' electric music.

I thought about Maggin's contention listening to "Night Owls," from an octet led by tenorman (also flute and clarinet) Chris Byars and Smalls Records. "All or Nothing at All" is done as bop, Latin-tinged, complete with saxophonists quoting Charlie Parker, or Leo Parker in the case of baritonist Mark Lopeman. The group's version of Tadd Dameron's "Gnid" also is straight line from the original boppers. Byars kind of reminds me of Sonny Stitt. I swear trombonist John Mosca is channeling J.J. Johnson.

That said, parts of this ("Village Beauty" for one, "The Way You Look Tonight" for another) make me think of "Birth of the Cool" and Gerry Mulligan's concert jazz band, which were more or less modal, albeit with bop roots sunk in swing soil. These guys aren't imitating in any event. They're using traditional tools to build their own state-of-the-art house, and a nice pad to hang out in for awhile it is. Proof bebop lives on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Greek getting his props

I was listening to "Parallel Lines," Candid, from Greek saxophonist Dimitri Vassilakis in the car yesterday and thinking again what an excellent CD it is. I'm not the only one. E-mail from Vassilakis this morning points out positive All About Jazz reviews here and here.

I caught the guy in London in March and really enjoyed it, and then had the opportunity to see him again in Chicago in April on his first trip to the U.S. Looks like he's building a following and he should be; he's good.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Free jazz, for now

Interesting new(er) Web log for discussing free jazz and posting MP3s of out-of-print and unreleased recordings. I don't know how they do it and I'm sure some music industry thug will shut them down soon, but it's fun while it lasts.

I continue to be royally honked that "licensing issues" killed Swing is in the Air, a favorite jazz podcast of mine that I'm willing to bet did nothing but create new jazz fans and generate jazz recording sales to those of us who already have religion. (You can still get a live stream of the ongoing radio show from whence Swing stemmed.)

Smalls is big

Smalls, the New York Club, has been a launching pad for some wonderful jazz musicians, as recounted in a June Downbeat piece, and Smalls Records is, thankfully, making a bunch of their music available. The article prompted me to buy the Omer Avital Group's "Asking No Permission," just one of the Smalls titles I had my eye on after experiencing the stunning Frank Hewitt CDs "We Loved You" and "Four Hundred Saturdays" from the label.