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

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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.

Full Length Portrait (2)

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

There are very few records that are the full portrait of a musician, a complete picture of what one musician tried to do over a lifetime, with successes and failures and tragedies and joys. There are very few records that can sum up this much about a person and a music.

Listen to Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Listen to it as if you’d never heard it before. Listen to it as if you could forget that Scott LaFaro was dead just a few weeks later; as if Bill Evans hadn’t chippied his way into the grave too early; as if Paul Motian’s drums still got set up at the Vanguard.

That’s the way the audience for that weekend in 1961 heard it. You can hear them, talking, drinking, laughing. The Village Vanguard is a small place, and this music is big music, but it doesn’t drive out the rest of the world, but includes it, wraps itself around it, winds its long solos and sinuous melodies through it.

Listen to it like that.

Bill Evans was careful about his records. He took time to make them, took care making them, and didn’t like when labels released unauthorized recordings. But, although his recorded work stands as a testament to his love of the music he played and his desire to have that music represented accurately, Evans spent most of his career not in the studio, but on the bandstand. Thousands of hours of  recording exist of Evans playing live: with Eddie Gomez; with Philly Joe Jones; with Alan Dawson; with Larry Bunker and Chuck Israels; with Marty Morell; with Jack DeJohnette; with musicians who sometimes energized the same old set lists (”California, Here I Come,” ”Alfie,” ”Turn Out The Stars,” ”T.T.T.T.”), and sometimes did not. But Evans always sounds the same.

He always sounds the way he does on Sunday At The Village Vanguard.

The Keepnews reissue of the album gives us three glorious takes of ”All Of You.” Listen to them. Listen to the way the melody morphs, ducks and weaves, fades and strengthens under Evans’s fingers. From those first chords from the piano alone, the trio crafts a beautiful thing, an interpretation, almost a tune of its own. These are not the obligatory ”standards” of many records today; they are living, breathing creations. If we were to discard the American songbook, as some have suggested, we would surely lose not sheet music or ”tradition,” but the chance to innovate and replenish, create new from old. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, but the music always rises again.

There is the beauty of ”Alice In Wonderland,” which changes from delicate melody statement to a shape-shifting swing. Or the dark shadows of ”Jade Visions,” nine beats to a measure – but we can hardly tell, as each tune plays so skillfully with their bar lines.

The trio of 1959, still finding its way , is gone. The trio of 1961’s Explorations, confirming its own sound, is gone. This trio, the live trio, the everyday trio, this is the real Bill Evans trio. Motian’s brushes provide a rock-steady but fluid foundation – or is it a roof? – for LaFaro and Evans; the bass is both the bass and the soprano voice, languorous and hyped, always providing just the right countermelody to the piano – Astaire and Rogers.

And the piano. The synchronized left- and right-hand lines, the full, deep chords, the unwavering thread of melody.

Listen to Sunday At The Village Vanguard. Scott LaFaro died a few weeks later. Evans’s heroin habit never left him, and he died in 1980. Even Motian, the last link, who seemed as if he would never die, is gone now, too.

But on Sunday, at the Village Vanguard, they were all young and alive, and so was their music. And it was never the same, before or since.

Full Length Portrait (1)

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

Listen to Bill Evans’s 1958 recording of ”Oleo,” from Everybody Digs Bill Evans. No one would say that this was a trio of disconnected voices: Evans, bassist Sam Jones and drummer Philly Joe Jones play fully interlocking music, with each musician complementing the others’ choices. Philly Joe lays out while bassist Jones takes over the pulse of the tune; Evans propels the recording forward with dynamic improvisation. In many ways – Evans’s across-the-bars soloing, shifting responsibilities for each musician – this was progressive music, a new look at the piano trio format.

Then, in 1959, Evans made Everybody Digs look like Dixieland. With Portrait In Jazz and his new trio mates Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian, Evans turned the trio on its head, and influenced generations of musicians, from contemporary colleagues such as Herbie Hancock and Paul Bley to pianists yet to come into their own, like Keith Jarrett, and pianists not yet born.

The funny thing is that Portrait In Jazz isn’t substantially different from Everybody Digs Bill Evans. 1959’s ”When I Fall In Love” or ”Blue In Green” still display the lyrical, melodic improvised lines of ”Lucky To Be Me” or the beautiful ”What Is There To Say?” And the swinging, relaxed rendition of ”Autumn Leaves” isn’t too far from ”Oleo.”

So what is the difference? It isn’t just Motian and LaFaro, or rather it isn’t their playing alone. It’s really the way that what was already present in Evans’s playing – the punchy, solid chords, layered, Debussian harmonies, and flowing, forward-leaning right-hand lines – is given room to expand and take up space. Philly Joe and Sam Jones are great players, and the Evans, Jones and Jones trio is a great one, too. But Portrait In Jazz is the first Evans record that shows us Bill Evans in completion.

Take ”Witchcraft.” Motian, for his part, plays a subdued but bouncy swing with hi-hat and brushes; it’s energetic, and it moves the tune along, but it isn’t in any way revolutionary, and besides his metronomic time, I doubt those only familiar with his later playing would know it was the same drummer. Evans plays very similarly to his work on Everybody Digs, or Live At The Half Note, with Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh – melodic playing with tinges of Tristano, block chords and fluid lines, a way of finding the most beautiful harmonic avenues to explore, even in a warhorse tune. But Evans does sound different here.

Motian’s playing may not be revolutionary, and Evans’s may not be such a drastic departure as it has sometimes been presented as. But the trio hasn’t yet been put together.

Compare ”Witchcraft” to ”Peri’s Scope,” for example. the latter tune sounds much more like the 1958 Evans than the ’59; why?

Who plays the first note of ”Witchcraft”? Scott LaFaro. Scott was a great bassist, but, as with the rest of this trio, his talents didn’t hit their real stride until this trio. LaFaro is seen by many as a ”busy” bassist – and he is – but his ability to leave just the right space for Evans’s piano seems almost telepathic. The truth is that LaFaro had been leaving those spaces for years, just as Evans was playing in them before Portrait In Jazz – but without the other half of the equation, neither could fully stretch into existence.

And that equation is the reason this trio really is different from any trio before 1959 – it established an equilibrium totally different from the accepted trio balance. Even trios that played with this musical balance of power, such as Jimmy Giuffre’s drummerless trios, didn’t get it right the way Evans, LaFaro and Motian did.

Portrait In Jazz is really the first real portrait of Evans. And it would turn out to be just a sketch compared to the finished work from this trio.

Next week: Part 2, Sunday At The Village Vanguard

The Meaning Of The Blues

Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

What is the meaning of the blues? And if anyone knows, is it really all that likely to be Keith Jarrett?

Isn’t it far more likely to be Wynton Marsalis? After all, in 1983, when Jarrett’s Standards, Volume One was released on ECM, Marsalis was talking an awful lot about the blues. He was talking an awful lot about an awful lot of things: pop music, Miles Davis, Buddy Bolden, his own jazz pedigree, and under it all was always, of course, the blues. Marsalis is a black musician from New Orleans, after all.

Of course, for all Marsalis’s talk and outward appearances, his claims to the heritage of jazz are more often contested than not in the jazz community, while Keith Jarrett’s musical philosophies  – if not his attitudes towards his audiences – have weathered extremely well.

Perhaps it’s because even though Standards, Volume One was released at the inception of Marsalis’s neo-traditional movement in jazz, and though its concept of interpreting standards – and only standards – seems to fit snugly into that traditionalist moment, the Jarrett Standards Trio is a band committed to the music. Just the music. Unlike Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette are three musicians with a point to make, and they let the music make it.

That’s the point.

Aside from all this analysis of the context of Standards, let me just say that this record is a scary fucking record. It’s visceral in a way that standards records, even later ones by Jarrett himself, fail to be. Part of this is undoubtedly the fiery playing by the trio; at times, Jarrett’s fingers seem to overtake themselves, and Peacock and DeJohnette are dizzyingly adept at filling in blanks and intuiting musical directions. Part of it is surely the literally frightening array of sounds that issue from Jarrett’s mouth over the course of the record. But the really scariness of Standards lies in the combination of these two; monumental imaginings of jazz standards, seemingly by some kind of inhuman beast.

I mentioned that the Standards Trio lets the music make its points. That’s what allows them to take liberties with the tunes, liberties that suddenly, when heard, seem no less than the composer’s complete intention. The Jarrett trio can’t make their points any other way – their histories are too contradictory, or at least meandering, for that. All played avant-garde jazz at one point; that’s how Gary Peacock made his name, after recording surf-movie soundtracks with Bud Shank, and it’s what Jarrett did with Charles Lloyd and DeJohnette in the ’60s. Jarrett, after breaking ground with the electric Miles Davis, renounced electronic instruments. All three were at the forefront of a generation that relished in leaving standards in the dust.

Wynton’s never been that way. That’s why he’ll never be able to record a version of ”God Bless The Child” that rocks out for a full fifteen minutes, Leon Russell-like, with backbeat and funky bassline and all. That’s why he’ll never squeal his way through an ”All The Things You Are” that somehow finds new paths through old changes. That’s why he’ll never find the meaning of the blues, or at least the meaning of the jazz tradition: that the music can’t be limited by its past; that the music only really lives when it’s injected with something new and fresh. Why was Louis Armstrong so badass? Because he played these notes at this speed over these changes? Partly. But mostly because no one had ever played that way before, and he did.

A lot of words have been written about how Marsalis went wrong. But not much time has been spent looking at the people who were doing it right. Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette do it right. They do it for the music. And hey – that’s the point, right?

Count Off

”Hello, ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, this is Uncle Don.”

See the ”About” page for more information on The Head In. The basic premise is one essay every Monday, each one dealing with an album from the list (below) of, as the header says, ”the albums that got me started.” That’s right – not a best-of list, not a comprehensive list by any means! There are certainly albums I wouldn’t have chosen today (such as the Oscar Peterson Frank Sinatra record), and I’d definitely have more scope in the whole thing (very few records here are from after 1965, and only two before 1950). But there they are, warts and all, and I’m going to try to make something out of them. Enjoy!

Here’s the list of albums (links will be added as the essays are published):

1. Affinity, Oscar Peterson (1962)

2. At Carnegie Hall, Thelonious Monk/John Coltrane (1957)

3. Black, Brown & Beige, Duke Ellington (compilation)

4. Blossom Dearie, Blossom Dearie (1956)

5. A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Vince Guaraldi (1964)

6. Chet Baker Sings, Chet Baker (1956)

7. The Birth Of The Cool, Miles Davis (1950)

8. Complete Decca Recordings, Count Basie (compilation)

9. Cookin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Davis (1956)

10. Feelin’ The Spirit, Grant Green (1962)

11. Figurations, Richard Nelson (2001)

12. Giant Steps, John Coltrane (1959)

13. Go!, Dexter Gordon

14. The Great Concerts, Dave Brubeck (compilation)

15. I Dig The Duke, I Dig The Count, Mel Tormé (1961)

16. I Just Dropped By To Say Hello, Johnny Hartman (1963)

17. The Incredible Jazz Guitar, Wes Montgomery (1960)

18. A Jazz Portrait Of Frank Sinatra, Oscar Peterson (1959)

19. Jazz Soul Of Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson (1959)

20. John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman, John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman (1963)

21. Like Someone In Love, Art Blakey (1960)

22. Live At The Village Vanguard, Wynton Marsalis (1999)

23. Love Letters, Roy Haynes (1998)

24. Lush Life, John Coltrane (1957)

25. Miles Smiles, Miles Davis (1966)

26. Milestones, Miles Davis (1958)

27. Mingus Ah Um, Charles Mingus (1959)

28. A Night In Tunisia, Art Blakey (1960)

29. Out Of The Afternoon, Roy Haynes (1962)

30. Out To Lunch, Eric Dolphy (1964)

31. Poll Winners ThreeBarney Kessel, Ray Brown & Shelly Manne (1959)

32. Portrait In Jazz, Bill Evans (1959)

33. Quartet, Billy Hart (2006)

34. Relaxin’ With The Miles Davis Quintet, Miles Davis (1956)

,35. The Ronnell Bright Trio, Ronnell Bright (1958)

36. Saxophone Colossus, Sonny Rollins (1956)

37. Smokin’ At The Half Note, Wes Montgomery & Wynton Kelly (1965)

38. Someday My Prince Will Come, Hank Jones, Richard Davis & Elvin Jones (2003)

39. Soul Station, Hank Mobley (1960)

40. Speak No Evil, Wayne Shorter (1964)

41. Standards, Volume 1, Keith Jarrett (1983)

42. Sunday At The Village Vanguard, Bill Evans (1961)

43. A Swingin’ Affair!, Frank Sinatra (1956)

44. Thelonious Monk And Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk & Sonny Rollins (1954)

45. Thelonious Monk Plays Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk (1955)

46. This Is Jazz 13: Erroll Garner, Erroll Garner (compilation)

47. Time Out, Dave Brubeck (1959)

48. Waltz For Debby, Bill Evans (1961)

49. The Wes Montgomery Trio, Wes Montgomery (1959)

50. Wizard Of The Vibes, Milt Jackson (1948-1952)

51. Zoot Sims And The Gershwin Brothers, Zoot Sims (1975)

Epilogue: Kind Of Blue, Miles Davis (1959)