Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Miles electric

Suppose I told you that I think Miles Davis' masterwork wasn't "Kind of Blue" but "Bitches Brew," or at least "In a Silent Way?" No, I haven't flipped and I'm not drinking, not right now. But I did just finish "Running the Voodoo Down: The Electric Music of Miles Davis" by Philip Freeman, what amounts to an extended analysis of the music from Miles' electric period in a nifty, information-packed new book I recommend highly. (It's a good read, too.)

I've had a thing for Miles electric since reading John Szwed's excellent biography of Davis "So What" a few years ago, which prompted me to rethink my aversion to his 1970s-90s output. "Running the Voodoo Down" has left me with an even deeper appreciation for the music as I work through significant CDs from the period, like "A Tribute to Jack Johnson," "Agharta," "On the Corner," "We Want Miles," "Tutu" and "Dark Magus" and "Get Up with It," the latter two of which I just purchased recently because of Freeman's description of them. ("He Loved Him Madly" and "Calypso Frelimo" on "Get Up with It" are without a doubt two of the more fascinating pieces of music I have heard.)

I think of "West End Blues" or "A Love Supreme" (as well as Beethoven's Ninth, Sousa marches, Muddy Waters singing "Mannish Boy" and Bruce Springsteen doing "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" for that matter) as powerful music because of their ability to move me, emotionally and physically.

The electronically oriented music Miles Davis made starting with "In a Silent Way" in 1969 is powerful on a more intellectual level, because of the ideas, the musical conception, behind it, and yet it's often visceral in nature at the same time. As Freeman notes, it also mixes multiple genres of jazz, the blues, soul, funk, rock, punk, even classical and proto hip-hop, metal and techno elements, not to mention African and Indian musics, among others. How many people have pulled off incorporating that kind of diversity in their music? It's alchemy, man, about as amazing as turning taconite pellets into gold nuggets would be, made possible because the guy at the heart of it brought to the table three, four, almost five decades (depending on when you're talking about) of experience assimilating a variety of music into his and, periodically, altering his music radically. Not to mention a mind I don't think worked quite like yours and mine, mine anyway.

Rather than being throwaway stuff made to sell disks in a rock-dominated environment, I think much of it represents the apex of Miles Davis' musical odyssey. Not all of it is great, certainly. Yes, some of it was likely aimed at pop sales. ("Doo-Bop" for sure, which I like anyway.) But it also includes some stunningly intricate music and some of Davis' best trumpet playing. (See "Live at the Fillmore East March 7, 1970: It's About That Time.") Some of it is downright elemental. (Like all of "On the Corner" and "Mtume" on "Get up with It.")

As a technology writer as well as a music listener, I'm not bothered by the electronics or the post-production work that, often in the hands of producer Teo Macero, turned fragments into a coherent whole. They're just additional tools, additional instruments if you will. I heard Herbie Hancock (a former Davis sideman who's all over Miles electric) and Michael Brecker play together last year and they employed synthesizers, iMacs and an Electronic Wind Instrument as well as acoustic jazz instruments. It was one of the best concerts I've been to, ever.

Springsteen's "Born to Run," the Beatles' "Abbey Road," U2's "Joshua Tree," Meat Loaf's "Bat Out of Hell" (kidding), almost any great rock recording of the past 40 years was heavily worked over after recording and it probably wasn't recorded sequentially. All you have to do is hear the stuff live to know this. But the fact doesn't diminish the greatness of the recordings, or their power.

The music from Miles Davis' electric period is equally powerful to me, albeit it a power more difficult to access because it requires careful listening to really understand, and listening with an open mind. But I find the payoff well worth it.

Monday, January 30, 2006

I'm for George, not that one

This morning I was relistening to "Maiden Voyage," Blue Note, which is must-have early Herbie Hancock by the way. It started me thinking about tenor saxophonist George Coleman, whose run with Miles Davis between the exit of Coltrane and the entrance of Shorter was cut short. Davis, and especially drummer Tony Williams, thought Coleman's extreme technical proficiency stifled his creativity when the tenorman played outside the box.

I think that's horse hockey. If you want to hear why, check out "Maiden Voyage," or better yet, "George Coleman at Yoshi's," Evidence, a live set with impressive extended soloing, and "4 Generations of Miles," Chesky, on which Coleman recrafts Davis tunes with fellow former Miles sidemen guitarist Mike Stern, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Jimmy Cobb. If you think what happens with a lineup of crafty vets like that is probably interesting, you're right. Personally, I think George Coleman is the tenor equivalent of Cannonball Adderley.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Sound machine

"Acoustic Machine," Atavistic, from reedist Ken Vandermark and The Vandermark 5 is a series of seven Vandermark compositions, liberally improvised on and each honoring a notable musical forerunner, among them Lester Young, Elvin Jones, Stan Getz and Archie Shepp. Generally interspersed with short connecting pieces (the opener could back a film noir), these aren't cover performances or imitative, but rather use music informed by the playing of the musicians to which they're dedicated as jumping off points for the band's own original flights.

"Stranger Blues" actually makes me think of Young, one of the saxophone's most soulful blues players, and "Coast to Coast" is remindful of Getz's cool jazz sound as well. "Auto Topography," the piece honoring Shepp, sounds more like it's straight out of Albert Ayler's book, although Archie himself could sound pretty Ayleresque back in the day. "Fall to Grace," the song for Jones, resembles something from William Parker's quartets, meaning it's outside yet not too outside. There's plenty of free improvising and modern hard bop playing contained within, but the music also swings in places and hints at avant-garde classical elsewhere.

Besides Vandermark, who plays tenor sax and clarinets, and Dave Rempis, alto and tenor saxes, both consistently inventive, trombonist Jeb Bishop stands out. Bassist Kent Kessler does an impressive job holding the freer pieces together and drummer Tim Mulvenna completes the pianoless group. An interesting disk throughout.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Loopin' lotsa sounds

Bassist Mark Helias leads a nice crew through 10 of his compositions on "Loopin' the Cool," an Enja reissue, including violinist Regina Carter. But the real standout is tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin. He excels at the largely avant-garde menu, heavy on the improvising, with an interesting sound centered on the higher registers and resembling Ornette Coleman, Pharoah Sanders or Archie Shepp here and there. Helias and two percussionists (Tom Rainey, mainly a drummer, and Epizo Bangoura, who plays djembe) fill out the somewhat unusual lineup.

Carter does something nifty on "Loop the Cool" and "Thumbs Up," making her violin sound like a horn in her exchanges with Eskelin, who then rips off excellent solos in both cases. Meanwhile, "One Time Only" sounds like it could have been written by Mingus, "Seventh Sign" moves from chamber jazz to free, "Penta Houve" has a strong Afro-Caribbean feel and "Hung Over Easy" is a soulful blues. The musical variety and fine playing make for a CD well worth getting.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dad's due

I think "Dewey Redman in London," which I bought from the good folks at IndieJazz and gave its second listen recently, is a fine way to get to know Joshua Redman's dad. Yeah, the kid can play the sax, but the old man can, too. He wasn't kicking it with Ornette Coleman, Keith Jarrett and Pat Metheny previously for nothing.

On "In London," he kind of reminds me of Sonny Rollins in places, with nice improvisational interpretations of "I Should Care," "The Very Thought of You" and Benny Golson's "Stablemates." Rita Marcotulli is a revelation on piano, for me anyway, on the live session from Ronnie Scott's famous jazz club in London, recorded in 1996. Matt Wilson, great on drums as always, and Cameron Brown on bass are seamless. Tunes such as "I-Pimp," "Portrait in Black & White," which starts with a spoken-word poem, "Tu-Inns," "Kleerwine" and particularly "Eleven" fit more with Redman's avant-garde jazz history, so it's a diverse disk. The give and take between Redman and Marcotulli on "Kleerwine" is outstanding.

Here's something I learned while working on writing this. Reedists Redman, Coleman and Prince Lasha and drummer Charles Moffett were in the same Texas high school marching band. Now that's something I would like to have seen, and heard.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Knepper's cunning

I'd been looking for Jimmy Knepper's 1987 CD "Cunningbird" from SteepleChase for awhile when I found it in LA in November because Knepper, more than once, has caught my ear on Mingus disks. There's some Mingus in this quintet session ("Languid," for example), and some Ellington as well (because there was a lot of Ellington in what Mingus did), which is natural, I suspect, when you have Mingus' trombonist of choice leading and his drummer of choice, Dannie Richmond, in the lineup, too.

Knepper gets trumpet-like licks out of his 'bone, in diversity if not tone, and then you have Al Cohn on tenor sax, Roland Hanna piano and George Mraz bass, each outstanding here. All the compositions are Knepper's and the mix is nice, including foot-tapping numbers like "Just Tonight," with tasty solos and interplay by Knepper and Cohn. Likewise on the Latin-inflected ballad "Noche Triste," which Hanna, Mraz and Richmond underscore marvelously. The title track is blues drenched and Sir Roland does his best Sunnyland Slim on it. A gem.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Konitz with strings, sort of

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originally uploaded by mrgreg.
This is one long title: "Lee Konitz & the Axis String Quartet Play French Impressionist Music from the 20th Century." And the disk from Palmetto isn't your father's "with strings" session, let me assure you, but decidedly third stream with the classical elements far more up front and the jazz elements still prominent.

I'm not sure many jazz saxophonists could pull this off, the late Steve Lacy maybe, perhaps Anthony Braxton. But the versatile Konitz does, with avant-garde-leaning improvisations that don't seem at all out of place. I think he also shows why the saxophone, despite age-old prejudices, could play a larger role in classical ensembles. It helps as well that some of the Impressionist composers, Ravel and Debussy for instance, had an affinity for jazz anyway. Arranger Ohad Talmor did a stellar job playing to the strengths of the music and the musicians here, too. Moreover, I believe this particular string quartet could step right into, say, William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and sell it. Which makes for compatible music and partners from Konitz's perspective and an interesting CD from mine.

Then again, I'm a guy who typically spends hours at the Musee d'Orsay perusing the Impressionist paintings (favorite: L'absinthe by Degas) whenever I'm in Paris, so I may not be the best judge.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Mehldau's menagerie

"Anything Goes" from Warner Brothers is a good Brad Mehldau CD, with the pianist and his regular trio remaking a nice variety of tunes, including one loopy Monk-like rendition of "Get Happy," a version of "Nearness of You" that didn't have me thinking of Norah Jones (Vince Guaraldi maybe), Monk's "Skippy" informed by Monk but not a slavish imitation, Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years" done up ballady and an avant-garde reading of "Smile," on which he seems to be playing with more than two hands.

If Mehldau, Vijay Iyer and Jean-Michael Pilc were in a cutting contest, I think I'd put my money on Pilc. His evident familiarity with stride leads me to believe he probably knows how to fight dirty and he talks some good trash at his live performances, albeit in French. I think it would be a close contest, however, like 62-60, and Mehldau sure wouldn't go 1-9.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Dreamy

"Like a Dream" from bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz (who usually goes by Oles), Cryptogramophone, begins with his classically influenced composition "November," a melodic bass and piano duet and a good way for Oles to introduce himself musically. He reminds me of the late Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen or Richard Davis, and that's a big compliment.

It's funny, I started listening without looking at who the other players are and of the pianist I thought, "That guy does an awfully good Brad Mehldau." That's because it is Brad Mehldau. He and Oles duet the first five songs, including one fine version of the only non-Oles composition, "You Don't Know What Love Is," on which Mehldau, as on "Time Cafe," shows why he's considered the most advanced jazz pianist going by a lot of people. (I'd like to get him, Vijay Iyer and Jean-Michael Pilc in a cutting contest.)

Oles plays with his regular quartet on two songs (saxophonist Chuck Manning and guitarist Larry Koonse are excellent) and in a trio on three others, with reeds legend Bennie Maupin joining in on "Conclusion, Part Two." Oles is good, as a bassist and a composer. Buy this to hear him and his, and especially to hear Mehldau in a complimentary setting.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Lloyd's bloom

Song shuffled up on the Nano during the morning walk and I'm thinking, "That's some pretty interesting saxophone playing," starting out like it's swing before working into post bop and on toward the free end of things. Then the piano kicked in, powerful and intricate at the same time, and I'm thinking, "Must be from a Herbie Hancock disk." Wrong. "Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd Live at Monterey," Rhino, and the tune "Forest Flower '69," which is actually sort of a bonus track, about 17 minutes worth.

The version of "Forest Flower" that opens the set comes in two movements, "Sunrise" and, duh, "Sunset." I really do hear a sunrise in the sax and piano playing, the relatively slow, quiet beginning of a day and its transition this time of year from dark to light and (too quick in my life) to hustle and bustle. Likewise, sunset, with a little party after work's done and then sleepy time. The pianist, by the way, is Keith Jarrett. Wonderful CD.

Friday, January 13, 2006

And a side of Cossack dancing

Funk, rock, hip-hop, free jazz, with a New Orleans marching beat in the case of "New Jack" and a beat that makes me think of a Cossack dance on "Unbreakable." That's what I hear, among other things, in "Towards a Shining Path," from Shantytone/Hyena and pianist Lafayette Gilchrist, whose playing on David Murray's wonderful "Waltz Again" prompted me to buy Gilchrist's own new CD, a septet session with four horns, including two tenor saxes, and the leader's eccentric pianism, Monkian in its own classically leaning way, anchoring it all.

"Elephant Dance" is like a Bugge Wesseltoft "New Conception of Jazz" thing, with more soul and less electronics, which you might say about the whole CD (including the marvelous "The Juggler's Dream"). You also might say that if the Bad Plus was a septet not a trio, and more swinging on the upbeat songs and noirish on the ballads, it would sound like this. Loud and generally interesting, although the horns are repetitious in spots and the bass and drums do largely the same thing all the way through. Still, the disk's worth it to hear Gilchrist, who's excellent, out front.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

My new hero

"Heroes" from Nagel Heyer puts alto saxophonist and former Jazz Messenger Donald Harrison in a pianoless sax trio for eight songs with bass god Ron Carter and drumming force of nature Billy Cobham (plus three bonus tracks with a different set of partners) and it's a good example of why I like the format. You get to hear a lot from all three musicians and in this case you're glad you do.

Harrison reminds me of Lee Konitz on his compositions "Heroes" and "Blues for a New Millennium," which range between adventurous post bop and free. He sounds like a cross between Stan Getz and Archie Shepp (an interesting combination) on "My Funny Valentine," a version of a song I like a lot that's different from versions I've heard before. He and Carter do it as a duet and Carter's bass playing is a big part of what makes it unusual, and good.

It's on "One of a Kind" and "Double Trouble," also his compositions, that I think Harrison really puts his own sound on display, not as fast as Charlie Parker but quick, not as heavy as Johnny Hodges but by no means light, not as melodic as Benny Carter but harmonious overall, and with the inventiveness of a Jackie McLean. I think he's particularly inventive on the ballad "Candlelight" and Miles Davis' "Solar." An excellent disk from a guy I now want to hear more of.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Two great nights, so far

So I bought the new DVD treatment of "A Great Day in Harlem," my favorite jazz documentary, over the weekend and I have worked my way through the first disk and am savoring the second, which includes nearly three hours of mini bios of all the musicians in the famous Art Kane Esquire photo employing reminiscences filmed for, but not included in, the movie (tons of delightful stories here), vintage photos and some performance clips. Rent it if you don't want to lay out the coin to buy it, but be sure to see it. It's a treasure.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Prince of a disk

Amazon told me to buy "Firebirds," a 1967 Prince Lasha (alto sax, flute and alto clarinet) and Sonny Simmons (alto sax and English horn) session from Contemporary/OJC. Score one for the Amazon algorithms tracking my musical tastes.

"The Island Song" opens in conventional hard bop mode, hits an interlude where it sounds like it's going to be wildly free and ends up for most of its nearly nine minutes comparable to early Ornette Coleman, "The Shape of Jazz to Come," for instance, although with its own unique sound. "Psalms of Solomon" is closer to Albert Ayler, if somewhat more melodic and less harsh, with the jazz creatively built around something like a Middle Eastern chant. "Prelude to Bird" and "The Loved Ones" are both nicely improvised ballads and the title track is the extended free jazz burner of the bunch. Drummer Charles Moffett and bassist Buster Williams are really complimentary and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes fits right in. I like it enough that I downloaded the other disk Lasha and Simmons did together, "The Cry!," from emusic.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Monk time

I keep telling myself I have enough Monk and then another looks-interesting reissue or lost session comes along and I can't help it, kind of like eating pizza. Last year it was "Thelonius Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall," Blue Note. Last week it was "It's Monk's Time," Columbia/Legacy.

He starts "Lulu's Back in Town" solo, playing it stride style as if Fats Waller were playing it, if Fats Waller were Monk. Then, when he brings the band in, Charlie Rouse on his saxophone solo plays as if Fats Waller were playing it, if Fats Waller was a saxophone player and also Monk, in all his never-fails-to-surprise glory. So cool.

Monk played with a lot of great saxophone players, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, Johnny Griffin, not to mention Charlie Parker, but I love hearing him with Rouse. Musically, they were simply symbiotic and their interplay on "Stuffy Turkey" is a classic example. (Great bass from Butch Warren, too.) Rouse takes the improvisational lead on "Brake's Sake" and Monk shadows him perfectly for a switch. I think this CD might be the apex of their collaboration, and I didn't really have enough Monk until I bought it ... maybe.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Tranespotting

OK, I'll admit it, whenever I hear Coltrane playing "Chasin the Trane" on "Live at the Village Vanguard" I have tears in my eyes (tears of joy) and I'm smiling. So sue me.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Jamming

I don't think it's righteous that Chuck Mangione has ended up the butt of "King of the Hill" episodes and largely dismissed by jazz purists. I wouldn't want to be without "Feels So Good," the song and the CD. Maynard Ferguson is another trumpeter (yeah, yeah, I know Chuck plays the flugelhorn) whose reputation suffers from a number of so-so attempts at commercial success over the years. But like Mangione, Ferguson has some gems on his resume as well.

Take "Hollywood Jam Sessions," Fresh Sound Records, which I bought recently. It's an exciting small-group (Ferguson plays with two different combinations on the disk) collection of swing and bebop and sometimes both at once, like "Night Letter." Besides fine group play, it features tasty solos from Ferguson and the rest of the horns, including Bud Shank on alto sax, outstanding Bob Cooper on tenor and trombonist Milt Bernhart, who gets in a memorable run on "Love Is Here to Stay."

Of course Ferguson hits some of his trademark high notes, but he also shows all-around trumpeting skills in the four 1954 blowing sessions, which span 14 to 16 minutes each. Russ Freeman, who played a lot with Chet Baker and was a top-notch bop and cool jazz pianist, is on two tracks, as are big hitters Curtis Counce on bass and Shelly Manne and Max Roach on drums. "Air Conditioned" is just plain hot. Prime stuff.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Catchin' the gypsy

My man James Carter is a dude's dude interpreting the music of Django Reinhardt on "Chasin' the Gypsy," one of the most excellent jazz CDs I own, period. Then again, J.C. is a saxophonist, so what does he have to lose by comparison? Now a guitarist reinterpreting Django Reinhardt, that's another matter, my friend.

I don't known if he's channeling Django or what, but on "Move," Dreyfus, French guitarist Bireli Lagrene is equal to the task. He has the gypsy rhythm thing down and brings a modern sensibility to Reinhardt's music as well. Check out the super guitar and sax dueting between Lagrene and Franck Wolf on "Un Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi" and "Place Du Tertre." I've got to think Django would have been thinking "Oh my god!" on Lagrene's run through Reinhardt's "Hungaria" and on the title track, which made my jaw drop.

The version of "Nuages" here is a great contrast to Carter's rendition and their rendering of the standard "Cherokee" rates with, say, the great long-form version by Wynton Marsalis on his Village Vanguard live sessions. This is the kind of CD that makes me sorry for people who don't listen to jazz.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Testing ecto

This is just a test post trying ecto, some locally resident blogging software I might use.

Cool, it seems to work.

And it's frigging fast, too.

Great news

I don't own a lot of jazz DVDs, but I'll be buying the new version of "A Great Day in Harlem," which is one of the coolest jazz documentaries I've seen. I used to have a VHS tape of it and it received repeated viewings until I gave it to my music teacher friend Carol Dewar to use in her classes. The addition of performance footage on the DVD sounds like a winner. For a nifty Web use of the famous Esquire picture that inspired the documentary, see harlem.org

Love struck

Sonny Rollins playing "Tennessee Waltz" (wonderfully, I might add) on "Falling in Love with Jazz," Milestone, came up on the Shuffle this morning and possessed me to pull out the disk and play it for the first time in a long while, reminding me what an enjoyable CD it is, in part because Rollins, who's in creative form improvisationally, shares two numbers with pianist Tommy Flanagan and a young Branford Marsalis.

Marsalis at this point in his career doesn't make for the same kind of heavyweight sax-blowing contest as Rollins and Coltrane on "Tenor Madness," Prestige/OJC, or Rollins and Sonny Stitt on "Sonny Side Up," Verve, but I think his presence prompts Mr. Rollins to push the envelope some, the last solo on "For All We Know," for example. "Amanda," a Rollins' composition, is a great fast-paced performance by him. Nifty lineup, including Jack DeJohnette and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums, good music.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Bang that violin

Billy Bang isn't Stuff Smith or St├ęphane Grappelli, although he steps out of their tradition as that fairly unusual kind of musician, a jazz violinist. I think Bang would probably be more comfortable in the classical setting more normal for his instrument of choice than either Smith or Grappelli, and yet he is no less the jazz musician.

His "Vietnam: Reflections" is a unified work like Bob Belden's incredible "Black Dahlia" with the same epic nature covering, in this case, Bang's experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. If that sounds to you like a like a theme likely to produce emotionally charged music, you're right. The CD from Justin Time also reminds me of Nguyen Le's "Dding Dek" in its incorporation of Vietnamese musical rhythms with Jazz, "Waltz of the Water Puppets" a standout example.

Other highlights: "Lock & Load," which despite the war connotation swings like mad. Ted Daniel, also a Vietnam veteran, does great trumpet work. Meanwhile, "Doi Moi" is a heart-rending ballad with Bang and pianist John Hicks, who seems to be great no matter what context you place him in, front and center. (Hicks is prominent on the musically diverse closer "Reconciliation 2" as well.) Add in notables such as James Spaulding on alto sax and flute, Henry Threadgill on flute, Curtis Lundy on bass and Michael Carvin on drums (he also gets in a heck of a run on "Reconciliation 2," which works in classical, jazz and oriental motifs) and you get a superior disk.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Out with the old

I wrote about some jazz CDs I enjoyed in 2005 over the weekend. Here are some other disks I liked, one a four-disk jazz collection and two otherwise.

1) Roky Erickson, "I Have Always Been Here Here Before," Shout Factory. Like The Doors or Dylan? They've got nothing over on Roky. I'm indebted to my buddies Carl Abernathy and Rodd Zolkos for making me go hear him at the Austin City Limits music festival in September.
2) Gerry Mulligan, "The Complete Verve Gerry Mulligan Concert Band Sessions," Mosaic. Probably the most I am ever going to spend on a CD collection and this great band, with wonderful musicians playing marvelous arrangements and adding their own fantastically creative improvisational stamp to them, is worth every penny or pence.
3) Corky Siegel, "Corky Siegel's Traveling Chamber Blues Show," Alligator. If somebody had told me the blues and classical music could be enjoyably fused I would have said they were crazy. Not anymore.