The Pressure Cooker


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.




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.

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


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)


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)


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