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

Wayne Shorter - Speak No Evil - Front

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.

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

Front

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.