New Again


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Looking back on many of the greatest jazz recordings, it can be hard to separate the sound of a particular record from the associations we have with its creators. It’s not easy to listen to, say, Steamin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet the way it would have been heard at the time, or even as the band expected it to be heard – because we know that Miles went on to have at least two more exemplary bands, John Coltrane pioneered the avant-garde and died in 1967, etc.

With the first jazz records I remember hearing, though, I have the opposite problem. Even though the sound of Thelonious Monk’s piano, Oscar Pettiford’s bass and Kenny Clarke’s drums on Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, for example, completely exemplify their unique styles, I can’t quite connect the sound of that record with any other by those musicians. The sounds are obviously the same, and yet I have a hard time contextualizing them.

That’s simply because I didn’t have any context when I first heard them. Soul Station is a good example, because there’s a lot of context to be found. When tenor saxophonist Hank Mobley walked into Rudy Van Gelder’s New Jersey studio to record the record that would become his best known, he was two years out of a long association with Horace Silver (Mobley was one of the original Jazz Messengers), one year away from a short stint replacing Coltrane in Miles Davis’s quintet, and sounded as good as he ever would.

With him in the studio was the piano/bass team he would join with Miles Davis – Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers. Both were Blue Note regulars, but Mobley’s chemistry with them on his own records and with Miles is underrated. Art Blakey, Mobley’s old boss, was on drums.

There’s the context, readily available and pretty neatly laid out and logical. But this record isn’t so logical as all that. Even though Alfred Lion and Mobley succeeded in laying out a completely typical hard bop date – complete with Bobby Timmons-esque tune titles like ”Dig Dis” and plenty of bluesy melodies – they failed in actually creating one. What was made was an exemplary hard bop date, and one that sits, like all classics, outside of its creators’ regular trajectories.

There’s no second horn on this date, a rarity in a quintet-obsessed era, and the extra space is used to awesome advantage by Mobley. The leisurely but inevitable progression of Mobley’s solo on the title tune wouldn’t be possible if Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan or Donald Byrd was waiting impatiently in the wings.

The absence of another horn also means that Soul Station isn’t an interrupted statement. These four musicians play so well together as a unit that it’s hard to imagine the chemistry surviving an addition to the group; in fact, we don’t have to imagine it, as 1961’s Roll Call is the same quartet plus Freddie Hubbard on trumpet. The music is good, but it’s no Soul Station.

Nothing really is, to me, anyway. Now that I have years of listening to jazz under my belt (and coming on four of writing about it), I can identify all the context to be found in Mobley’s work, and in the styles of his sidemen on Soul Station. I can even hear it, sometimes. But habits are hard to break, and my habits about listening to this record were formed when I knew nothing about jazz – about bebop, hard bop, Mobley, Blakey, Blue Note or anything. That’s what makes this, and most of the other records I’m discussing on this blog, hard to write about. It’s easy to hear the music, but hard for me to label it. And I like it that way.

And The Band Played On

wynton at village vanguard cover

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

To my mind, the three Village Vanguard records that really sum up the nineties are Benny Green’s Testifyin’, Joshua Redman’s The Spirit Of The Moment, and Wynton Marsalis’s Live At The Village Vanguard. Before you stop reading, yes, I know there are many more Vanguard records out there, but these are more like Time’s Person Of The Year: they aren’t really indicative of anything except, as Redman (or at least Warner Bros.) put it, the ”spirit of the moment.”

In the mid-1990s, that moment was the Marsalis-led neo-traditionalist movement. Benny Green’s record epitomizes it – nothing happens on this record that wouldn’t have happened in 1959, if the only music made in 1959 had been Oscar Peterson’s A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra. Redman’s record ventures further into the young turk territory of hard bop and early post-bop – he at least makes it to My Favorite ThingsSpirit Of The Moment is an exhilarating disc, but it also exemplifies the young turks in that it’s obviously the work of a musician who became too famous too fast – Redman was already in fashion ads and on the cover of GQ by the mid-nineties, and while there’s a lot of interesting music on the Vanguard disc, there’s also a lot of grandstanding and long-windedness.

There shouldn’t be any need to say why the Marsalis record exemplifies the neo-trad, young-turks movement of the 1980s and 1990s. Marsalis and his brother Branford started the whole thing, and kept the fire burning at least into the late 1990s. Marsalis rocketed to an early fame similar to Redman’s, the difference being that unlike Redman, he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. The result is that he ended up like an insect preserved in amber – nothing he ever does will do much to shift our perception of him as a loudmouthed young kid without much street cred but a lot of opinions.

So it might come as a surprise that Live At The Village Vanguard – a record that gives Wynton seven entire CDs to spread out on, a record that features a long spoken piece about how Buddy Bolden’s trumpet sounded just like this and made people act just like that – has weathered better than almost every other young turk record from the ’90s (the ”almost” is because of Redman’s magnificent Mood Swing, and for Brad Mehldau’s first record).

Part of this is undoubtedly because Live At The Village Vanguard
was recorded from 1992 to 1999 but was released all at once as a mythical seven-day run, a span that allows the music to exist in its own world, both evolving over time and existing in one moment. Another genius move – one that could have backfired – is that Wynton’s opening and closing announcements are included on each disc. And it would have backfired too – if Marsalis was anyone else. But because he’s Wynton, his charming announcements humanize him and separate this music from our impressions of the man.

And, of course, there’s the music. I’m a fan of Marsalis’s music – at least the albums he released until 2000 or so  – but in my opinion, this is the cream of the crop. The band is at its best (Wessell Anderson, Victor Goines, Eric Reed and and drummer Herlin Riley in particular) and Wynton rocks the house every time he picks up the trumpet. As with his announcements, the span of the music allows it to put some distance between its reality our our perceived one. Yes, Marsalis pulls out some Louis Armstrong, and some blues – but there are an equal amount of Miles Davis and Clifford Brown moments here (he sounds especially like Brownie, and under-recognized influence on Marsalis, on two renditions of ”Stardust,” and on the unmuted version of ”Cherokee”).

I love this record for the music. That’s saying something for a record made a trumpeter who’s never been allowed to just make music, either by the critics, the public or himself. But this is the one. A few years removed from his second-coming-of-Christ debut or its twelve-horsemen-of-the-Apocalypse aftermath, and several years away from his stagnation as a business-suited, pudgy executive mainly interested in education and Dubai, Live At The Village Vanguard is the happy medium of Marsalis’s discography.

Full Length Portrait (3)

Bill Evans Trio_Waltz For Debby

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

But, of course, they are gone. One of them was gone before the trio’s last album, Waltz For Debby, was released; the record became a kind of memorial to Scott LaFaro, dead at twenty-five in a car accident.

It is the beauty of the Evans/Motian/LaFaro trio that it represents the peak of the music they made; no one else, not even capable pianists like Paul Bley or Steve Kuhn or Keith Jarrett, can quite recapture the sound of it. That’s also the tragedy, because not Evans couldn’t, either. While Paul Motian moved on to other styles and other music ideas, Evans couldn’t get past the Bill Evans trio of 1961. He might try the Rhodes out for an album or two, or overdub himself, or rhapsodize about Eddie Gomez, but the truth is that for all the good music Bill Evans made after 1961, none of it was truly great.

John Coltrane in the 1950s and early 1960s had a favorite mouthpiece, which he ended up filing down to improve on its sound; he made a mistake, the mouthpiece was ruined, and, subtly, his music was never the same. Bill Evans had a trio in 1961; its bassist died, and though Evans was recording again by 1962, something, subtly, was different. Chuck Israels and Larry Bunker, Motian’s and Lafaro’s successors, play some great solos with Evans; but the dynamic was different. The sound that was so freewheeling and loose, yet still deeply anchored, had been ruptured by LaFaro’s death. It’s almost as if Evans wasn’t going to get burned again, so he never let his sidemen play in that same trio dynamic again. He and LaFaro and Motian were so close on the bandstand, and when it fell apart, Evans fell apart, too.

The arrangements started stagnating. The solos started sounding startlingly similar. Just listen to the two versions of ”My Romance” from Waltz For Debby; each one has its gems, its moments where everything crystallizes into a moment of telepathic awesomeness (check out the moment of total in-sync groove from around 3:15-3:21 on take one). Then try to find those same moments on a record like California, Here I Come, a perfectly competent recording by more than competent musicians (Evans, Gomez and Philly Joe Jones). But they’re hard to find. The multiple versions of ”Alfie” or the title track sound more like alternate takes from an Oscar Peterson session – scripted almost to the solo.

Waltz For Debby is a beautiful record, but it wasn’t meant to be released; the tracks were assembled after LaFaro’s death, but if he’d lived they probably wouldn’t have been seen for decades. And that’s more fitting for the trio; two whole records from the same run at the Vanguard would have been growing too much moss for these guys. Waltz is all the more poignant, then, for being the moment when Evans hit slow-motion on something extraordinary, something that he knew would never happen again.

Next Monday: Wynton Marsalis at the Vanguard.

Time Out


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Dave Brubeck is gone.

So much time is spent talking about Brubeck’s one major innovation – the popularization of different time signatures in jazz – that too little is taken to discuss the largely self-contained beauty of his music. As Ethan Iverson points out at Do The Math, Brubeck was one of the only major pianists to never record as a sideman; and although some of his tunes became standards, Brubeck’s own work sits apart.

Perhaps it is because Brubeck never was a jazz musician. His musical goals never seemed to be quite the same as his contemporaries in the jazz world – or, for that matter, in the classical one.

It’s lamentable that so many focus on Paul Desmond, but it isn’t surprising. The image of Brubeck is a great one for those looking for ”easy jazz.” It’s popular, lyrical, and there are enough complexities (the time signatures) for a jazz newbie to survive for a while among afficianados.

But that train seems to have left without Brubeck. Why else would ”Take Five” be the automatic RIP track for Brubeck? And, while Time Out is a beautiful record, why have I only seen so few talk about, say, ”Strange Meadowlark”? 

In the 1960s and 1970s, Brubeck was often a principle character in the conflict between the ”real” – black – jazz of the East Coast and the ”fake” – white – jazz of the West Coast. He’s perfect for it – a Milhaud-trained, square-sounding pianist seemingly more committed to finding the least-hip rhythm or the most cluttered chord. Martin Williams, for one, hated him  – not least because he became popular while black musicians struggled to get by.

Now, we’re all pretty much agreed that white jazz musicians can play the music well, even if they can’t, and shouldn’t, claim authenticity over black innovators. And, with hindsight, we can see that all that conflict around Brubeck misses the point.

That point is that Brubeck minded his own business for ninety-one years. He weathered storms, rode waves, and made great music for decades. He was a gentle man who loved what he did and loved the musicians he did it with; the cared deeply about the traditions of all music, but wasn’t afraid to bend the rules. And he never let anyone get him down.

Dave Brubeck is gone. But his music will never leave.