Delayed Reaction


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.

Whenever It’s Early Twilight


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.

If I Were A Gate, I’d Be Swinging


Read the introduction and see the full album list here.

I don’t remember the first time I heard a jazz record, but I do remember the first time I paid attention.

It cursed me, in a way, ”If I Were A Bell.” I think the fact that the first jazz recording that really captivated me was made in 1956 might have contributed to my reluctance, for several years, to listen to anything made beyond 1965. But I don’t care about that.

It’s the best jazz recording ever made. I’ll get in trouble for that. I don’t care about that, either. I guess I should clarify that word, best. See, I don’t think it should be the only jazz recording. I don’t even think it’s the greatest, the most important, jazz recording ever made. You can fight that one out amongst yourselves; I’ll be over here in the corner, listening to ”If I Were A Bell.”

That’s the beauty of it. That’s why it never wears down. It has the essence of jazz in its eight minutes of sound. I don’t mean the Wynton Marsalis essence of jazz – vague words like ”swing” that raise more questions than they answer, and a lot of talk about Buddy Bolden and the way things used to be  – but the real essence of the music.

Lester Young liked to tell a story with his solos. That’s what jazz is, isn’t it? It’s what every creative art strives to be – a good story. Today, it’s fashionable to tell our audiences all about what we do. I’ve done it here on The Head In. ”Here’s who I am, why I’m here, what you’re getting.” Robert Glasper does it when he tells us about how jazz is on the wrong path, how we need to let go of this and grab on to that; Wynton did it at the Vanguard with ”Buddy Bolden”; whether you’re Vijay Iyer or Yoko Ono or Richard Ford or Chuck Close, you all do it, because that’s what’s done.

Not in the eight-minute world of ”If I Were A Bell.” Not in the eight-minute world where people play it and tell you what it is later. When I was younger, I thought that Miles never got around to telling us what it was. There’s no raspy epilogue – ”That was ‘If I Were A Bell,’ motherfucker.”

Oh, but there is. There are five voices telling us what song it is, motherfucker. For eight minutes.

I still hear this tune not only as a beautifully coherent, almost telepathic quintet performance, but also as five isolated voices. There’s Miles, muted but close to the mike, loud in the mix. The mute crystallizes every note, so no phrase is lost in the dead sound of the recording studio. He plays the melody, and then he plays a few dozen more, tells us his little story.

Then there’s Coltrane, of course; the early, lyrical Coltrane, before religion and liver problems and Alice and Archie Shepp. But even here, he dives right in, late to the mike, adding his chapter to the story. Under it all, Paul Chambers’s bass is providing a countermelody, the subplot. Close your eyes for a moment as you listen. Forget about Miles, Coltrane, the foreshadowing of Red Garland’s stabbing left hand, and forward lean of Philly Joe’s cymbal. Just listen to Paul Chambers, just for a moment.

”I’ll play it, and tell you what it is later.” That’s jazz, right there. Because it is music, after all. It isn’t books, or movies, or that link to the hip new blog. Is jazz dead? If you have to ask, you ain’t got it, because it’s right here, telling you what it is now.

I’ve listened to a lot of music since I first heard ”If I Were A Bell.” A lot of records have told me stories just as good, and as well, too. That’s where jazz is. It’s in the stories – not in artist’s statements, or Treme, or the Atlantic. It’s in the music. So come on over to my corner, ‘cause man, have I got a tune to play for you.