THI @ Nextbop, Edition /Hiatus

Read my newest piece at Nextbop, about Ahmad Jamal and the routes to musical maturity, right here. And, if it’s still up, you can read the completely nonsensical comment left by a man named Sam Goldring. I’ve gotten some crazy-ass comments in my day, but that one comes close to taking the cake (a cash prize will be awarded for every sentence that you can prove relates directly to my article). Enjoy!

In other news, The Head In will be on hiatus until March 18th. I’ll be driving out to Albuquerque, New Mexico with a buddy, and honestly won’t have the time for blogging. See you on the flip side!

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The Art Of The Compilation, Take 1

THI will be on hiatus until 3/18!

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

A compilation is a hard thing to wrote about. There isn’t much personality to a compilation; not the kind of personality that comes with an album as it was released – the original liner notes, cover art, and programming.

This essay project is all about the personality that records have. But the fact is that at least three of my first jazz albums were compilations, so I guess I have to find something in here, somewhere.

The Duke compilation the hardest of the three to write about. That’s because I formed an impression of what Duke Ellington’s music was supposed to sound like – from hearing Thelonious Monk’s Plays Duke Ellington, or from Mingus – and then encountered what the music actually sounds like, and have never quite reconciled the two. The abbreviated version of Duke Ellington is that his new approach to harmony and composition, and his commitment to the African-Americanness of an art form whose origins were often, in the 1930s and 1940s, debated, ushered in decades of explorative and socially conscious jazz musicians.

The summary isn’t so bad. And it’s borne out in a lot of the music – from the early records in the Cotton Club years to Black, Brown And Beige with Mahalia Jackson or ”Isfahan.”

But in between those bookends of Ellington’s music – the vibrant early years, the explorative later ones – there are several discs worth of what where, in the 1940s, pop tunes. These tunes were Ellington’s entry in the popular music of the time, and he shared the arena not with Monk or Mingus, but with Woody Herman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Count Basie and even Glenn Miller.

This is the music on Black, Brown & Beige.

Some of this music is timelessly Duke. ”Otto (Make That Riff Staccato)” is one of my favorite Ellington tunes. It features all the hallmark Duke elements – from the muted trumpet to the dense ensemble work and the driving rhythm section – plus lyrics that are, for once, listenable.

Has any jazz composer been so -badly served so often by lyrics? Point to ”Lush Life” all you like – for every worthwhile set of words set to Duke’s music, there are ten more that’ll make you wince. It weakens – or at least hides – much of Ellington’s best work from the ’40s, which is too bad.

In the end, Black, Brown & Beige is an interesting set that features much of what be called ”the greatest hits,” but also pushes to the foreground several worthwhile pieces that might be overshadowed by the more Monkian or Mingusy aspects of Duke – like ”Long, Strong & Consecutive,” or ”Every Hour On The Hour (I Fall In Love With You.”

It may not have much personality as a record, but it serves Duke’s own very well.

THI @ Nextbop, Edition 7

This week’s Nextbop essay is a day late – sorry about that. I’ve been listening to Pharoah Sanders’ Impulse records lately. Read my thoughts here!

My slightly incensed post ”Jazz Is Like The Color Yellow” is no longer a regular THI post, but can be found under the ”About” page link to the right. Check it out – but be warned, it’s not strictly speaking THI.

Duke Ellington next Monday. Stay tuned!

Whenever It’s Early Twilight

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Take a few minutes and watch this video:

The trumpeter is Chet Baker, performing what might his best-known recording, ”My Funny Valentine,” in 1959 (probably in Europe). The comments below the video usually run something like, ”Phrasing by intuition,” ”What a bad-ass,” ”Wow.” Some contain information (all false) as to the missing front tooth visible in the clip – ”punched out by a heroin dealer,” etc. In fact, he never told the story of the missing front tooth, and when he lost many more teeth later in his life, he blamed it on a group of black men who, he alleged, ambushed him in an alleyway (none of the men were ever identified).

Yes, the voice and the trumpet tone are beautiful. But I have to disagree with the commenters who complain about the way this video shows Baker the man. The young Chet Baker is perhaps less of a musical icon than a visual one; his angelic voice and unsettlingly perfect good looks often prove far more captivating than his music, especially when paired with his life of excess. Chet is jazz’s Dorian Gray.

So I think of this video as very accurate. With his huge aviators and black gap of a front tooth, he looks frightening, like a skeleton; his voice is angelic, yes, but also careens wildly from note to note. His mouth is about an inch away from the microphone, which he seems not to even notice, and he clings to the stand is if he’d fall if he let go. The baritone player looks at him with a set expression. The band is all white.

Baker first sang ”My Funny Valentine” in 1954, and the rendition – a stark, melancholy one – was released on Dick Bock’s Pacific label two years later on the record Chet Baker Sings. And, although Chet Baker Sings is a great record, I don’t want it to be.

A good number of jazz musicians were, to put it kindly, less than gentlemen. Sonny Stitt once gave trumpeter Freddie Webster poisoned heroin and killed him – according to Miles Davis, who by his own admission once stole Clark Terry’s trumpet and pawned it. From Charlie Parker peeing on prostitutes to Philly Joe Jones stealing a truckload of records from Riverside’s warehouse to sell for drug money, the jazz pantheon is filled with, well, jerks. Of course, these jerks also made great music. Such is life.

Chet is different. Chet had that special gift of sucking the soul from other humans. He didn’t just not make the gig; he’d make the gig and screw your wife and get you addicted to painkillers and then disappear forever. If you were lucky, you’d live a full life without him. If you weren’t – and many weren’t, such as Baker accolyte Bobby Jaspar – you died an early death, or went to prison, or never, ever moved on. Not too many people showed up to Baker’s funeral.

However, if we judged all great artists on their personalities, we wouldn’t have much art. So what about the music?

Not all that great. I personally don’t subscribe to the whole ”Chet stole everything from Miles” argument. Everyone has influences, some stronger than others – Ambrose Akinmusire and Wynton Marsalis are both influenced by Clifford Brown, but it’s far more present in Wynton’s style than Akinmusire’s – and it’s no different with Chet and Miles. The problem is that Miles changed the conversation from influence to race, and although Chet was white, he always took care to acknowledge his debt to Miles (there’s a bootleg somewhere of a concert in Holland where Chet describes Miles as ”my favorite trumpet player – I guess you already knew that.”)

No, Chet’s music is mediocre for its own reasons – namely that Baker was too lazy to learn how to play the trumpet to the level that he should have reached. He had a great ear, and chose to rely on that rather than formal instruction. For some musicians, it worked. Not for Chet, whose range of tones and technical devices always seems to fall just short of what he has in mind. In the end, Chet Baker made a good deal of competent jazz records and several more incompetent ones, and he also wasn’t a great guy to hang around with.

Except for one thing. Chet Baker Sings.

With Chet Baker Sings, Baker shows us everything he could have done if he’d only cared a little bit more. What is ugly in 1959 is beautiful in 1954 and 1956; the trumpet is light instead of dull, his phrasing energetic and on the beat instead of struggling to keep pace. It’s Chet Baker Sings that gives us the duality between beautiful music and soulless personality. Without Chet Baker Sings, there is no Chet Baker.

Compare that 1959 ”My Funny Valentine” with this, the 1954 version:

Yes, there is ugliness behind the angelic voice; yes, there are limitations to the trumpet’s phrasing; the tooth was missing in 1954, too. But Baker worked hard on this record, and it shows. Perhaps it would have been better if he’d never made another record after this, so that we wouldn’t have to know about the true trajectory of his career. But in the end – like Dorian Gray – is purity of the past is always more interesting when we know about the evil that lay underneath.

THI @ Nextbop, Edition 6

The newest Nextbop essay is out today. I continued with the general Wayne Shorter theme and talked about one of my favorite Art Blakey records, Free For All. I feel that this record is the best place to hear Shorter ”without a net,” no matter what his most recent album title says. Check it out here!

Back To Normal: Hear No Evil

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Jazz standards are unpopular these days, for good reasons (high schoolers pointing their trumpets in The Real Book at the Berklee Jazz Festival) and bad (tradition versus innovation, blah blah blah, see my previous post). Myself, I’m against jazz standards for two reasons: they blind us to the great tunes of today which should share equal billing (and fake-booking, if you’re into that sort of thing), and they dull the vitality of the ”standards” themselves.

Wayne Shorter is in the news recently for his newest record, and return to Blue Note – Without A Net. Writing my review for Nextbop inspired me to go back to the source of my love for Wayne – his awe-inspiring Speak No Evil, recorded during his first stunt for Blue Note in 1964. At least half of its six tunes are considered jazz standards, but looking back from 2013 – almost fifty years later – Speak No Evil is far from dulled.

It’s an equilibrium record. You know what I mean – the kind of record where everything hangs suspended in a perfect balance. The slightest tap on either side of the scale, we feel, would disrupt the whole thing.

Nothing taps Speak No Evil.

It was recorded by a quintet perfectly matched; more perfectly, it seems to me, than any other of the records made in 1964-1966 by this almost incestuously promiscuous group of musicians, almost all from the bands of either Miles or Coltrane. Maiden Voyage, Lifetime, Fuchsia Swing Song, The Soothsayer… 

That last record provides a useful counterpoint in Tony Williams’s drums. The Soothsayer (and all the records made by or with Wayne Shorter that feature Williams) is an uneasy record, a jittery, sharply angled record. It contains beautiful music – there’s no denying the beauty of its music – but it never seems to settle into any identifiable space.

Speak No Evil lives in its own world, and Elvin Jones is its master carpenter. Speak No Evil is very much an ensemble record, but it is also very much an Elvin Jones record. Would the dark energy of ”Dance Cadaverous” (a criminally underplayed tune) have been possible without the solidly hollow sound of Jones’s tom-toms at its beginning, or the crackle of his snare? Would the maelstrom of swing that envelops the title track exist without Elvin’s seemingly eight-armed contribution?

He doesn’t do it by himself, of course; just as the lead carpenter doesn’t build the house by himself, Elvin’s energy and momentum are beautifully complemented by Wayne’s crew on Speak No Evil. Herbie Hancock plays one of his most delicately powerful solos on ”Infant Eyes,” and lays down a muscular, bluesy passage on ”Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.”

There’s a particular face I make when I hear ”Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” It’s the face I often felt myself make at certain glorious moments when playing music myself, on the bandstand; the best recorded music brings me those same feelings of being on the brink, teetering on the edge of something wonderful. My whole being tenses as the music reaches the edge of the creative cliff, and there is pure joy as the music takes off, rather than drops.

This record is that cliff. Every melody, every solo, contains that moment of tension, stretched and drawn out like a rubber band, then snapped back into what, by the time it’s over, seems inevitable. The depth of field is incredible: to listen to ”Dance Cadaverous” or the rawness of ”Witch Hunt” on tinny speakers is a crime.

Perhaps that’s the real problem with jazz standards. ”Witch Hunt,” in particular, has become a standard jam session tune for young musicians thanks to books like The Real Book. But those charts are just another version of tinny speakers. A chart could never capture the urgency with which these melodies are played, the immediacy of their existence on vinyl. As with Lee Morgan’s best tunes (”Party Time” is one), it seems impossible that the melodies on Speak No Evil could ever have been written down, even by their composer; there is a seamless interaction between written and improvised melody here.

I’ve mentioned ”Dance Cadaverous” a few times already. When you close this browser window, pause a moment before going to Twitter or Facebook or Buzzfeed or whatever your plans may have been; open iTunes and plug in your best speakers, or better yet walk to the turntable and take Speak No Evil out of its sleeve; and listen to ”Dance Cadaverous.” Do not speak. Just listen. The read this essay again, and maybe then, you will see what I can barely hint at here; because the truth of this music is only found in this music.

THI @ Nextbop, Edition 5

The newest Nextbop essay is out. You can read it here – this week, I discuss the ongoing and incredibly useless conversation about ”the death of jazz,” which seems to crop up every month or so.

In other news, Anthony Dean-Harris, my endlessly patient editor at Nextbop, has started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the Nextbop SXSW party this year. It all goes down in Austin on my birthday, March 13, and if you’re saying ”why should I fund something I won’t or can’t be attending,” then take a look at the awesome rewards you’ll get for your contribution (a recording of all the sets? What???).

Here’s the Kickstarter link. There’s only 19 days left, and less than $600 out of $12,000 raised, so get out your wallets, kids.