The Other Side Of The Coin

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Two weeks ago at Nextbop, I wrote about the nuances of the tribute album and praised Wynton Marsalis’s Marsalis Plays Monk as a masterful handling of those nuances.

A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra, recorded by the Oscar Peterson trio in 1959, is a record with a more difficult goal in mind, and unfortunately it falls far short of the mark, mainly because of the same nuances Marsalis navigated so well with his Monk record.

There are two obvious reasons why A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra might fail; surprisingly, neither is. The first is the concept itself. While it’s relatively easy for a vocalist to pay tribute to an instrumentalist (think Jon Hendricks) it’s much harder to go in the opposite direction, especially when that vocalist is Frank Sinatra, one of the most instantly recognizable voices in all of music. The second is the running time of the record. The whole thing clocks in at slightly more than half an hour, pretty measly even for the LP era.

Why is neither one the death of A Jazz Portrait? Well, the concept actually fits Peterson pretty well. Like Sinatra, the pianist liked to be well supported but wasn’t completely comfortable letting his support into the spotlight, and both favored tightly arranged tunes that they could bend to their will. And Peterson was an able vocalist himself, as he demonstrated in 1965 with his much more successful tribute record for Nat King Cole. 

But there’s a distance between the material – a competent summary of Sinatra’s biggest hits at the time – and the trio. Peterson was a kind and creative man, and I can’t really see him phoning anything in – he was too earnest for that. But this comes as close as anything could; solo space for Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen (meagre at the best of times – I always chafe at the thought that the masterful Thigpen put in his peak years getting eight bars a record of solo space with Peterson) is cut to nearly nothing, and Peterson himself breezes through anonymously arranged melodies, puts in his chorus of improvisation, and closes it out. Everything is at a high level technically, but there isn’t much here musically. 

It’s puzzling that no effort was made to replicate Nelson Riddle’s original Sinatra arrangements – the ones here barely deserve to be called such, and were probably worked out in the studio right before the red light turned on. Most tunes are taken at an easy, medium-up swing tempo, a tempo one clarinetist I played with refused to play – ”because you’ll never leave it.” The repetition of ideas is all a bit numbing.

Marsalis was able to use his Monk tribute as an opportunity to reveal something about his own style through an examination of another’s; Peterson could have done the same, but there’s no other style present. The tunes are Sinatra tunes, the running times are Sinatra running times, sure – but the arrangements, the solos, the group dynamic – it’s all Peterson. The concept is the only place Sinatra appears, and it’s just not enough.

Ultimately, A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra fails because of its lack of connection. I find it hard to believe that this record was Peterson’s idea. Though he worked well with vocalists (especially Fred Astaire) and had a nuanced idea of the tribute album (as evidenced on his Nat King Cole disc), Sinatra doesn’t seem like Peterson’s musical brother. This jazz portrait is more illustration than art.

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.

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.

Confirmation

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I bought it at my local record store in 2007, the year after it came out. I’d seen Hart play with Kurt Rosenwinkel in Boston that year with some more knowledgeable friends from my school’s jazz band (I was a freshman in high school, just getting into jazz). I’d been fascinated by Hart’s playing, and even more so (at that time) by his cymbals, stacked and inverted like nothing I’d ever seen before.

So I was browsing the bins in the record store, and one dark jewel case stood out – a Billy Hart album. The cover looked cool, with Mark Turner (who I’d also seen at the Kurt gig) statuesque in front of the band, and Hart in the foreground of the photograph, with that face and those cymbals. I actually begged three bucks from some guy farther down the jazz aisle to get enough money to buy it.

But Billy Hart’s Quartet – with Hart, Ethan Iverson, Ben Street and Turner – scared the shit out of me. I didn’t even listen to the whole thing until a few years later.

The sheer diversity of Quartet‘s music is what kept me coming back, however. For every moment I heard as just a sound and fury, signifying nothing, there was another that captivated me completely; and as I returned again and again to those moments, more revealed themselves to me. The bewildering passages unfolded into comprehension, and with each listen, more and more doors were opened.

The disc starts out like the soundtrack to a nightmare; a dark, crashing chord from Iverson starts the first tune, ”Mellow B,” and gives way to an ominous walk from Street’s bass, accompanied by a crisp swing from Hart, progressing to a skittering solo. Turner and Iverson are beautifully suited to each other (Iverson plays on Turner’s own Dharma Days) and the whole group seems almost telepathic.

That telepathy creates one of my favorite moments on Quartet. During Turner’s solo on the impossibly beautiful Hart ballad ”Lullaby For Imke” (never say a drummer isn’t a good writer), Iverson collaborates, seemingly accidentally, with the saxophonist on an incredible line from around 3:22 to 3:29, supplying the last note in Turner’s descending trill.

For those of you who’ve seen the master list for this blog, it’s obvious that my earliest jazz education came from the Golden Age of jazz, the 1950s and 1960s. Quartet, then, was a double revelation – it was my first experience with the sound of jazz contemporary to myself, a sound wholly different from that of the Blue Note and Prestige records I loved, and it was also an introduction to the evolution of style. After all, Hart had started out playing in the Golden Age. As I reverse-engineered his evolution, the way was paved for my love of the young and old styles of drummers like Paul Motian, Roy Haynes and Jack DeJohnette.

I doubt if I ever would have explored Kurt Rosenwinkel’s music if I hadn’t heard Ben Street and Mark Turner here; I never would have picked up a record by The Bad Plus if it wasn’t for Iverson’s endlessly creative piano on Quartet. It was probably the sixth or seventh time listening to the quartet’s version of ”Confirmation” before I finally saw a point to its seemingly endless repetition of the melody – but by forcing me to hear the same lines over and over again, it also forced me to hear the nuances of melody that a more abbreviated reading would overlook – and helped me understand where the masterful Iverson solo on the same tune was coming from, at least partially.

Quartet is a great record. Its cover photograph shows the band playing at the Jazz Standard in NYC; this is a studio album, but its greatness comes from the interaction of a band used to playing onstage. Just like Art Blakey’s Free For All or Miles Davis’s Milestones, part of the magic comes from hearing a band for whom connectedness has become second nature, not through the self-conscious rehearsal process, but through the vivid and living experience of the stage.

And you know what? It still scares the shit out me. May it be ever so.

New Again

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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.