Delayed Reaction

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Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I stole my copy of Soul Station. I’m not proud of this. It was lent to me by a friend of mine, an alto player, and never returned. Again, I’m not proud of this; but Soul Station has proved  to be one of my favorite records. I have it completely memorized, and even though I’ve had it uploaded to my computer for years, and I can’t bring myself to get rid of the CD.

Hank Mobley is an odd entry in the jazz pantheon. At his peak, he was a saxophonist as popular with the hard-bop audience as Coltrane or Miles. He made dozens of recordings, mainly for Blue Note. He did not languish in obscurity – he was not an ”uncrowned prince,” as Art Blakey once said of Kenny Dorham. But he was, perhaps, too heavily crowned for true success. Records flowed endlessly out of Mobley’s horn, so many on Blue Note alone that it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. And, by the late 1960s, Mobley was seen as all chaff, a relic of hard bop struggling (and failing) to adapt to the sounds of a new era. This idea persisted until the 1980s, and even beyond. I remember reading a piece by a jazz critic who derided Mobley for his performance next to Coltrane on ”Someday My Prince Will Come,” with Miles’s group. The critic said that Mobley was probably scared to be in the studio with Coltrane; that his sound was nervous and unpolished next to the ”greater” saxophonist.

Bullshit. We know this is bullshit now; we’ve moved into the era of Mobley-appreciation. Mobley was playing years before Coltrane, and had played with him four years earlier, on a Prestige group date, and again, with Johnny Griffin, for Blue Note. The two even hung out together at Nica de Koenigswater’s house in New Jersey.

With hindsight, we can separate the wheat from the chaff more easily. The liner notes to Mobley’s Roll Call, released the same year as that ”Someday My Prince Will Come,” are hopeful that Mobley will soon come into his own as a tenor star. He never did while he was alive. But now he has – thanks to one record.

Soul Station is a masterpiece. In my mind it edges out Roll Call, if only because in an era of quintets, it’s marvelous to be able to hear Mobley without another horn vying for attention. Another saxophonist might have floundered in all the extra space, but Mobley has crafted a watertight album. Impeccably programmed, the set list moves seamlessly from tune to tune, exploring just the right tempo at just the right time. Without a trumpet in the front line, Art Blakey plays with a hard but restrained style, while Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly have ample time to fill in Mobley’s blanks and take some of their best recorded solos.

Every great Mobley lick is here, and every one sounds fresh out of the box. His gracefully descending lines, bluesy bent notes, and effortless twists through the changes. These are all the things that were overlooked in the shadow of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, a shadow that has come to define Mobley and his career. It’s a question of apples and oranges, of course; Mobley was for his whole career, and after, defined through comparison to the tenor innovators. But Mobley was no innovator. Like his bandmates on Soul Station, he was an expert, committed to playing hard bop as well as it could ever be played. Put Soul Station on the stereo, and hear his success.

Annonser

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.