THI @ Nextbop, Edition 4

I think this is the best essay I’ve done so far for Nextbop. The idea that the masters of jazz should be allowed to take their place as legends, instead of being treated like contemporary players – even if, like Sonny Rollins, they still make music – is one that’s been with me for a while. The masters are of the past. Their music may be good, even excellent, but it is in very few cases groundbreaking or even all that exciting (an exception is Wayne Shorter, whose newest album is out in February and is currently streaming at Nextbop).

I don’t want to see Sonny Rollins at the top of a DownBeat poll – or Herbie Hancock, or Ahmad Jamal, or anybody. The music is undoubtedly good, but it’s creating impossible competition for the jazz creators of today. Read my whole take here.

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The Pressure Cooker

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

No Art Blakey record has ever seemed as complete to me as A Night In Tunisia, and no Jazz Messengers lineup as perfectly matched at that which recorded the record for Blue Note in 1960: Blakey on drums, Lee Morgan on trumpet, Wayne Shorter on tenor, Jymie Merritt on bass, and Bobby Timmons on piano.

Art Blakey made a lot of great records in this period, for Blue Note and for Riverside. But for all the furious intensity of a Free For All or the mellow intricacy of a Buhaina’s Delight, it’s hard to find an equal for A Night In Tunisia (though the excellent Mosaic, from 1961, comes close).

Tunisia has my favorite Blakey lick, the drum introduction to ”Kozo’s Waltz,” a lick I tried for months to perfect in the few minutes before high school jazz band started each week. Badadadah, budududuh, bahdahdah BUH BUH. Ba-da-da-duh-buh-huh, buh-bah-dah-buh-duh-buh. That perfect press roll. Those amazing polyrhythms.

I always loved that ”A Night In Tunisia” is the opening track on the album. It’s as if Blakey and the band are testing us, the audience, seeing if we can make it through eleven minutes of pure music, trial by melodic fire. Make it past Blakey’s incredible solo on ”Tunisia,” and Morgan and Shorter’s sublime solo passages at the end – if you can still form complete sentences, you’ve earned the rest of the album.

Lee Morgan was beautiful writer (”Ceora” from the overlooked Cornbread is a favorite of mine, and his tunes on The Procrastinator are marvelous). Of Tunisia‘s six tunes, two are by Morgan, and they’re great. We don’t just get the lyrical ”Kozo’s Waltz,” but also the ballad ”Yama,” which shows the band’s cohesiveness and gives an idea as to where later Shorter compositions like ”Dance Cadaverous” may have gotten some of their inspiration.

Wayne’s ”Sincerely Diana” is pure hard bop, all forward motion and Shorter harmonies. Shorter was in his second year of recording, but his compositional voice has already progressed significantly from his own Vee-Jay discs.

That’s really what Blakey’s band was all about. The Jazz Messengers were the pressure cooker of jazz. I would say hard bop, because Blakey was firmly rooted in what is called hard bop – though he called it no such thing – but I hesitate. Blakey may have been a hard bop and bebop drummer, but his talent was not for turning out great hard bop or bebop players, though he did that, too.

What he did so well was take musicians who were good musicians, and he forced them to find themselves. Shorter was a passable Coltrane devotee in 1959, but his first record after leaving Art Blakey, 1964’s Speak No Evil, shows the many musical miles he’d covered since then. Lee Morgan was a gifted young trumpeter in 1959, well on his way to becoming one of the best trumpeters in hard bop. He left Blakey with a new sense of bandleading, and some of his best records – The Sidewinder, The Procrastinator, Search For The New Land – were made after he left the group.

Bobby Timmons went from ”the youngest member of our ensemble” with Kenny Dorham in 1956 to a confident leader of trios and quartets. The same story fits countless other Blakey alumni, from Freddie Hubbard to Keith Jarrett. A Night In Tunisia is the record that shows it all: tunes from the band, the pressure cooker set piece, the cohesive sound (much of it owed to the rock-solid foundation laid down by Jymie Merritt, a criminally overlooked bassist).

It may not have the fire and brimstone energy of Free For All, or the genesis appeal of The Jazz Messengers in 1956, but this is no journeyman record. Don’t let it sneak by.

THI @ Nextbop, Edition 3

Week three of my association with Nextbop.com. This week, it’s Wynton Marsalis and his masterful Monk tribute record, Marsalis Plays Monk. Tribute records are slippery, especially Thelonious Monk tributes, because they seek to honor an individual style with another, which puts both in danger. I think Wynton got it right, though. You can read the piece here.

Tout Doucement

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Why do we remember Blossom Dearie? A supper-club singer and pianist, a pure product of the 1950s with a Village haircut, an average piano style and a voice reminiscent of of a brassy Fred Astaire’s, she demonstrated over the years an unshakable commitment to lightweight material and the French language.

Just one Blossom Dearie song, or even two, fails to convince. Why did her name end up famous when so many of her colleagues in the Paris or New York clubs receded into obscurity?

She may have shared Mel Tormé and Sammy Davis, Jr.’s affinity and enthusiasm for bad material, but surely their superior technical skill and A-list friends (Judy Garland, Sinatra) elevate them far beyond the supper clubs?

Why have we forgotten Ruth Price and Lucy Reed, but remember Blossom? And what makes her 1956 Verve debut, Blossom Dearie, so great?

Her voice, first of all. It holds an innocence that makes her reading of the smirking, spunky lines of ”Everything I’ve Got” even punchier, and a guileless enthusiasm that somehow redeems songs like ”Comment Allez-Vous,” one of the three French songs on the record (”It Might As Well Be Spring” is sung in an American-accented French which belies her fluency).

Is it great jazz? Maybe not. Blossom’s Wikipedia page tells us that she often recorded in the bebop idiom, a laughable claim. Despite being married to Belgian tenorman/flautist Bobby Jaspar, an original improviser styled after Coltrane, until his early death in 1963, her own playing is decidedly background music, though it has its moments (the instrumental ”More Than You Know” is supremely tasteful).

Her singing, too, occupies a no-man’s-land of style. Its amateurish beauty could be likened to Chet Baker’s, but Baker’s readings were – for all their beauty – flat and dead; bandmates have described him as an idiot savant, not absorbing a single lyric beyond its note on the page. The only voice I’ve heard that comes close is Fred Astaire’s; not Astaire at his peak, but Astaire in 1952 with Ellis, Brown, Oscar Peterson and Alvin Stoller. His voice is thinly confident, nearing the realm of singers but always remaining conversational. Dearie is stronger here, but that conversational quality exists, as does the charm. She even sings an Astaire flagship tune, ”I Won’t Dance.”

The standout track, for me, is ”Thou Swell.” It shows Dearie’s voice at its best; threatening to slide off-key but never quite taking the plunge, devoid of vibrato, girlish but wise. Its casualness is not studied, and its amateurishness only enhances its beauty; like Mary Tyler Moore on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Blossom’s voice was something true to life, and that made it all the more unreachable. The arrangement is perfect, well executed but with rounded edges.

Blossom Dearie is, at heart, dinner music without dinner, background music with the foreground removed. Its continental aspirations, silly songs, and lightfooted approach may seem a bit dated now, but the voice that sing it all has aged gracefully; supper-club music it maybe be, but I’ve never wished I had the supper-club between me and that music. It’s a testament to that something, whatever it is, that makes us remember Blossom Dearie.

THI @ Nextbop, Edition 2

When was the last time you heard a good record that could barely hold it together? We don’t usually think of sloppy execution and insightful musical achievement as going together, but for some musicians, the form never followed function. A prime example is Charles Mingus, whose very loose record Charles Mingus And Friends In Concert, released in 1972, I discuss at Nextbop this week.

Again, my sincere thanks go out to Sebastien Helary and Anthony Dean-Harris of Nextbop, who invited me to write for Nextbop, which is an amazing project.

The link again – read my essay, ”Don’t Be Afraid, The Clown’s Afraid Too” here.

Oh, Good Grief

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Gunther Schuller, it ain’t.

I think that many of us in the jazz community feel some resentment towards the success of crossover records like The In Crowd or the subject of today’s essay, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. We resent them for two reasons. First because, for people who don’t know much about jazz, they have come to represent the genre as a whole; ”Don’t listen to that,” we want to say, ”listen to Archie Shepp, or Bill Evans, or Duke Ellington!” The second reason, of course, is because they sound so good.

A bassist friend of mine, recently graduated from the New England Conservatory, proudly proclaims his love for the ”Skating,” the bouncy waltz from pianist Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s a great tune, but it takes a bit of courage to say that you admire Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown records. Jeez, Peanuts? Isn’t that, you know, selling out? Isn’t that the kind of jazz people who don’t listen to jazz listen to?

There’s no denying that Guaraldi was a man with an eye for riding the wave to success. He got it, with Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus and its hit single, ”Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” in 1963. The first Charlie Brown record, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was released in 1964 and was fully titled Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown to capitalize both on Guaraldi’s previous record and on similar concept albums from California jazzmen, such as Andre Previn’s records of Gigi and West Side Story or Shelly Manne’s Lil’ Abner and My Fair Lady.

Those records are a bit boring, though. They’re trying too hard to either enter into the spirit of the musical or to transform it into ”serious” material. And the musicians usually seem to have little connection to the tunes – understandable, since they may have loved one or two of the tunes, but when they ended up recorded all the songs they got stuck with some of the less memorable ones.

A Boy Named Charlie Brown is very different from most ”soundtrack” recordings for two reasons: Guaraldi composed the music himself, so the connection is definitely there; and little effort is made to represent the subject of a song in its melody. Take ”Freda (With The Naturally Curly Hair),” for example. If you’re stumped about how to rite a song about Freda, don’t worry – Vince didn’t really even try. Instead, we get a deep-in-the-pocket swing from Guaraldi, bassist Monte Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey.

The same goes for most of the tracks. ”Linus And Lucy” is the only one that seems soundtrack-like in any way, and it’s also the tune best known from the record. The rest – like the other tracks from The In Crowd – aren’t as crossover-ready.

That quality has helped A Boy Named Charlie Brown weather the years better than the discs of more lauded musicians like Manne or Previn. Guaraldi created a record inextricably linked to a TV special, while simultaneously distancing it from that TV special as much as he could – for all the specificity of his track names, the tunes are really just good jazz tunes.

So don’t resent the success of A Boy Named Charlie Brown – rather, be happy that Guaraldi managed to sneak an unadulterated jazz record onto people’s shelves, and sell out while maintaining his musical integrity.

THI @ Nextbop

My first piece at Nextbop.com has been published. You can read my take on Joshua Redman’s early records right here. It’s an honor to have been invited to contribute to a site like Nextbop. Just like THI, my Nextbop pieces will be weekly, although they have a slightly different slant.

Just read it.