Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Marian McPartland, RIP

I haven't felt compelled to add to this blog for some time.  But Marian McPartland died yesterday, and I have to pay tribute.

We've lost a lot of jazz giants lately.  Another great pianist, Cedar Walton, died just a day before Ms. McPartland; he was 79.  But McPartland's contributions went much further than her piano playing; this is a loss which hits hard.

Many listeners knew McPartland best as the host of the NPR radio program Piano Jazz.  From 1978 to 2011, she traded licks with everyone from Eubie Blake to Frank Zappa on the show, and always sounded like she was having the time of her life doing so.

 Her range as a pianist was impressive; there are recordings of her playing dixieland standards with her husband Jimmy, playing bebop, and playing Ornette Coleman tunes.  For most of McParland's career, there was a lightness to her music; it seldom touched me deeply, although I always enjoyed it.  One exception to that caveat is her 2007 album Twilight World.  There are a few moments of rhythmic uncertainty, but there is an emotional depth to her playing that I seldom hear in her earlier work, fine as it is.

She was part of Alec Wilder's "inner circle" - her taste and respect for melody led Wilder to write pieces such as "Jazz Waltz for a Friend," "Homework," and, well, "Inner Circle" for her.  This Alec Wilder fan is grateful.

We've lost a great pianist, composer, writer, and spokesperson for jazz.  RIP, Marian.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Harlem Air Shaft

I would not be able to single out any Duke Ellington recording as my favorite.  But I could probably make a list of my favorites, and high on that list would be "Harlem Air Shaft." It's a piece that has long fascinated me for its seeming adherence to, and subversion of, the conventions of its time.  At first hearing, it seems to be a typical big-band riff tune, like "In the Mood" or "Jumpin' at the Woodside."  (A "riff," for those who aren't sure, is a short, repeated melodic snippet; think of the saxophone melody of "In the Mood," which is built on a riff repeated five times.)  "Harlem Air Shaft," after the introduction, can be heard as nothing more than four riff-based choruses.  But Ellington plays with the riff conventions in some inventive ways, and in the process came up with a minor masterpiece.

"Harlem Air Shaft" was recorded by the Ellington band on July 22, 1940, near the beginning of a period of unbelievable genius by Ellington. In the years of 1940 and 1941, it seemed as if every Ellington recording session produced at least two or three masterpieces. The July 22 session resulted in at least one more, "All Too Soon," and the equally brilliant "Sepia Panorama" was recorded two days later. "Harlem Air Shaft" and "Sepia Panorama" were released as two sides of a 78 RPM record - 50 cents well spent, for a record buyer in 1940!

Skip the introduction for a minute, and listen to the first chorus. Muted trumpets play a repeated two-measure riff in harmony, with a few alterations to fit the chord changes. In almost any other band, this trumpet riff would be answered or overlayed with riffs by the saxophone and/or trombone sections. But Ellington's counterpoint to the trumpet riff is not another riff; it's a long-lined unison melody by the saxophone section. The trumpet riff is catchy; the saxophone melody is striking and bluesy.  At the bridge, there's a richly harmonized saxophone riff, with Tricky Sam Nanton's vocalized plunger-muted trombone counterpoint.

The second chorus is a dialogue between the saxophones, riffing in harmony, and the solo trumpet of Cootie Williams.  It could have been ordinary and predictable, but the three stop-time moments, where the rhythm section stops playing and the saxes sing out, are surprising and arresting.  (What did the dancers do?)  Ellington's sax riffs are more varied than was usual for the time, and of course, Cootie Williams at his peak is exciting to hear.

There's a new, bluesy riff in the third chorus, played by the trombones in harmony.  The saxophones, in unison, fill in the gaps between the trombone riffs with very inventive, constantly changing licks; it's easy to overlook them at first.  The bridge has the brass playing irregular, accented chords, with the saxophones again murmuring below.  Barney Bigard's clarinet soars over the entire chorus.

The fourth chorus most closely follows standard big-band procedures of the time; volume drops and the brass and saxophones riff together in harmony for sixteen measure in harmony, with Cootie's tightly-muted trumpet dancing over the ensemble.  But even here, Ellington is not content to settle for the ordinary - after a two-measure riff that is repeated, he has written a beautiful four-measure answer rather than repeating the riff two more times.

At the bridge, Bigard once again takes over the solo role, playing humorous little near-glissando runs between appearances of a new ensemble riff.  But wait - it's not new at all; we've heard it before.  It's a harmonized version of what Tricky Sam played in the bridge back in the first chorus.  The piece ends with a powerhouse, stabbing brass riff, the saxophones playing a contrasting, more melodic riff (similar to what they played in the third chorus), and Bigard's clarinet wailing above it all.

Throughout all of this, the band plays great drive; the forward motion of "Harlem Air Shaft" is relentless and exciting.  And the colors are constantly varied; instrumental combinations change frequently, and the way Ellington uses each section of the band is altered from chorus to chorus.  The saxophones are, in some ways, the real stars of the performance; their harmonized sound is just delicious, and their unison riffs are played with great subtlety.

But we skipped the introduction.  It's brilliant, but it's only revealed to be so after we've heard the rest of "Harlem Air Shaft."  The introduction is a mini-overture; in twelve measures it sums up the rest of the piece.  For the first four measure, the saxophones play, over rich brass chords, what we later realize is a slight variation on the trumpet riff from the first chorus.  The next four measures don't strictly "pre-echo" anything in the body of the piece, but the saxophone harmonies suggest links with several later spots, such as the saxophone melody in the stop-time portion of the second chorus.  The last four measures of the intro begin with a single statement of the trombone riff from the third chorus, followed by a short transition to the first chorus.

It's simple, but brilliant, and almost every detail of the piece is worth our attention.  "Harlem Air Shaft" is a big-band riff tune, but a riff tune written by a composer of genius.  Go listen to it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Maurice Durand and a Chance Encounter With Jazz History

Every time I visit New Orleans I find something remarkable, or at least interesting, just by wandering around.  On my visit last week, geocaching took me to a spot on Burgundy Street in the Bywater neighborhood in the Ninth Ward - a spot I didn't know exsisted.  It's a large arch, erected in in 1919 "by the people of this the Ninth Ward in honor of its citizens who were enlisted in combative service and in memory of those who made the supreme sacrifice in the triumph of right over might in the Great World War."

The arch is pretty interesting and impressive in and of itself.  I found a website on the monument and its history here.  I don't know how tall it is, but I'm almost six feet tall, and the top of my head only made it one-fourth of the way or so up the four large brass plaques on the arch.  You can see two of the plaques in the picture to the left, the other two are on the other side of the arch.  They list the names of all the men from the Ninth Ward who served in World War I.  I was a little surprised, but shouldn't have been, to see that the names are divided by race; three of the plaques list the white soldiers who served, while one of the two on the back honors the "colored" men who served in the war.

As I was looking at the names of the African-American Ninth Warders who served, one name jumped out at me: that of Maurice Durand.  I knew that Durand was an early jazz and brass band trumpet player from New Orleans, and it seemed to me that he would have been about the right age to have served in the first World War.  But I wasn't sure whether or not this name represented the right Maurice Durand.  When I got home, a little research revealed that, yes, this was Maurice Durand, the musician.

An early-eighties interview with saxophonist and bandleader Harold Dejan placed Durand in the correct part of New Orleans:

Maurice Durand had his own little band too, so I played with him too. Durand lived on Deslonde Street in the 9th Ward and used to get all the jobs down St. Bernard Parish. During the day he worked at a broom factory. He played on all the weddings and St. Joseph day parties. Maurice used to play in the Alley Cabaret by the St. Bernard Market, that's on Claiborne and St. Bernard and in the back was the Alley Cabaret.

But did Durand serve in the military during WWI?  Yes, he did, as it turns out.  Discussing the famous Onward Brass Band and its members in his book Fallen Heroes: A History of New Orleans Brass Bands, Richard Knowles says that Durand played both clarinet and trumpet in the 816th Pioneer Regimental Brass Band, which spent time in both England and France during the war.

Durand, born just outside of New Orleans in 1893, was a student of the legendary Professor Jim Humphrey, who taught so many early jazzmen.  He had a youthful band with Willie Humphrey, the Professor's grandson, and later became something of a protégé of Manuel Perez, the famous cornetist.  Durand played with the Onward, Tuxedo, Imperial, and Terminal brass bands and played dance band jobs like the ones described by Harold Dejan above.  According to the brass band history website containing the quote from Dejan, Durand also gigged at the famous Pythian Temple Roof Garden uptown.

That same website states that Maurice Durand never recorded, and that's almost true.  Fed up with the meager pay, he retired from music in 1933 and moved to San Francisco in 1944 - he died there in 1961.  But jazz researcher Bill Russell tracked him down and recorded an interview with him in 1958.  During the interview, Russell persuaded him to play a little trumpet, and on the CD which accompanies the Fallen Heroes book, you can hear Maurice Durand play 16 measures of "I'm Confessin'."  His lip is obviously out of shape, but you can also tell that this is a man with a good command of the trumpet.  

I'm not sure how interesting all of this is to anyone else, but my chance encounter with a little bit of jazz history fascinated me.  I was glad to pay tribute to a jazz pioneer.

Friday, October 12, 2012

1928 Victor "Race" Record Sleeve

A couple of years ago I bought a box of 78 RPM records, mostly early country music from the late 1920s and early 1930s.  In the box was this 1928 record sleeve, which was intended for a Victor "race" record - that being the term used at the time for records aimed at an African-American audience.  I was struck by the sleeve when I saw it; not only is it a beautiful example of one-color graphic design, but, unusually for its time, it portrays black artists with a certain amount of dignity and respect.

Blues researcher Jeff Titon devoted an entire chapter of his book Early Downhome Blues to the differences in record companies' portrayals of early country music and early blues in their advertising.  Advertisements for early country records (or "old-time tunes") generally featured white rural Americans in peaceful, dignified settings - listening to the phonograph in the evening or dancing with their neighbors.  "Race" record advertisements, on the other hand, were often filled with cartoonish caricatures of black culture.  It was as if the record companies were so out of touch with black America that they didn't realize that they were offending the very people they were trying to sell records to.

This record sleeve is different, for the most part.  There is a hint of blackface in the depiction of comedians Jones and Jones in the lower right-hand corner of the front, and the clarinetist in the upper left-hand corner is a little over the top, but otherwise, the illustrations are sympathetic.  Each of the pictures corresponds to a Victor record listed on the back - and how amazing it would be to have original copies of all of these records!  Clockwise from the upper left, the pictures represent clarinetist Douglas Williams, Rev. F.W. McGhee, blues singer Luke Jordan, Jelly Roll Morton's band, Jones and Jones, Johnny Dodds' Washboard Band, The Memphis Jug Band, and the Pace Jubilee Singers.

I have about half of this music on CD, but none of these 78s.  I selected a Victor record from the same period to keep in this wonderful sleeve - "Get Low-Down Blues"/"Kansas City Breakdown:" by Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra.  I have quite a few early record sleeves, but this one is by far my favorite.

Monday, October 8, 2012


John Tchicai died yesterday.  The Danish saxophonist, most strongly associated with free jazz, avant-garde, or whatever you want to call the more adventurous side of jazz, was 76.  From the first time I heard Tchicai's music, some 35 years ago, I was transfixed - I had never heard anything like it.  The record was Archie Shepp in Europe, the Delmark label's U.S. issue of the album also known as The New York Contemporary Five, Vol. 1.  Tchicai's contributions to the music of this important, but still underrated group stood apart from the improvisations of his fellow horn players, Don Cherry and Archie Shepp.  Shepp was loquacious and Cherry quirky, but both of them indulged their imaginations fully, resulting in solos which were rambling (in a positive sense), full-bodied, and many-noted.  Tchicai's alto saxophone improvisations, on the other hand, carried a mantle of reserve, of deliberation; they exhibited a sense of logical construction that was almost compositional.  Yet his playing somehow managed to combine this careful construction with as much adventurousness as Cherry's or Shepp's.  Amiri Baraka, then known as Leroi Jones, called Tchicai's early solos "metal poems."

And there was a freshness in Tchicai's playing; it was like nothing else in jazz.  Based on his early style, I would guess that he had listened fairly extensively to Lee Konitz and Ornette Coleman, but he didn't sound like either of them.  Early and late in his career, he sounded only like John Tchicai.

During his early stint in New York, from 1963 to 1966, Tchicai achievements were remarkable - as he put it later, "I managed to do a lot in a short time."  Besides his contributions to the New York Contemporary Five, he was alto a member of the very important New York Art Quartet, with trombonist Roswell Rudd as the other horn.  He played on Albert Ayler's New York Eye and Ear Control.  And a jam with John Coltrane led to Tchicai's appearance on Coltrane's groundbreaking Ascension album.

He returned to Europe in 1966 and expanded his instrumental arsenal; he never abandoned the alto sax, but added tenor and soprano sax and bass clarinet.  He formed the genre-bending big band Cadentia Nova Danica and played and recorded with Pierre Dorge's New Jungle Orchestra (I particularly like "Very Hot/Autobahn Tchicai" from the album Even the Moon is Dancing) and various Cecil Taylor large ensembles.  In the 1990's, after he was awarded a lifetime grant from the Danish Ministry of Culture, he moved back to the U.S. - to California this time.  After many more albums and collaborations, he moved to the south of France, where he died in the hospital yesterday.

Over the years Tchicai's instrumental "voice" deepened and expanded in expressive range, while remaining recognizable and unique.  His discography is extensive, but my choices to pay tribute today were a very early album, Rufus, and a later one, Love is TouchingRufus is by four-fifths of the New York Contemporary Five (Don Cherry is missing); it's from 1963, and is a wonderful example of his early style.  Love is Touching was recorded in California over 30 years later with a very young backup band, the Archetypes.  Tchicai is generous with solo space (I wish he had featured himself more) and utilizes electronics effectively.

If you want to hear John Tchicai, any of the albums by the New York Contemporary Five and the New York Art Quartet are recommended, as is Afrodisiaca by Candentia Nova Danica.  I certainly haven't heard Tchicai's complete recorded output, but my favorites include Timo's Message on Black Saint, Grandpa's Spells on Storyville, Life Overflowing with Charlie Kohlhase on Nada, and Witch's Scream by Tchicai, Reggie Workman, and Andrew Cyrille on TUM, as well as the ones I've already mentioned.

I never heard Tchicai in person, but I came close.  One my first visit Copenhagen, I missed him by one day.  I regretted that then and I regret it now.  So long, John Tchicai.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Best Graph Ever

I haven't added to this blog much lately, so I might as well post something different from my usual ramblings about music.

In 1869, Charles Joseph Minard published a graphic map depicting the march to, and retreat from, Moscow by Napoleon's army in the campaign of 1812/1813.  It tells quite a story.  19th-century French scientist Étienne-Jules Marey said that Minard's graph "defies the pen of the historian in its brutal eloquence"  Over a century later, statistician Edward Tufte opined that it "may well be the best statistical graphic ever drawn."  It's certainly sobering once you realize what information Minard is presenting.  Take a look (click to enlarge):

You can click here for a larger view of the map than Blogger will let me provide.  I suggest taking a look at the larger picture - it will open in a new window.

The tan band represents Napoleon's army moving eastward, from the Polish/Russian border toward Moscow.  The size of the band corresponds to the number of men he had at each point of the march.  He began with 422,000 soldiers; he was down to 100,000 by the time he reached Moscow.  Parts of the French army split off from the main force at two locations.

The black band shows the army retreating westward, away from Moscow.  10,000 of the original 422,000 men lived to cross the border back into Poland.

The black "retreat" band is linked to a date and temperature graph along the bottom.  The temperature scale used was the Réaumur scale, which used 0° as the freezing point and 80° as boiling.  It was 0° when the army left Moscow in the middle of October, 21 below zero (about -15 °F) by November 14, and -30 (about -35 °F) by December 6.

Minard has included more telling details.  Look what happens when the army has to cross a river.  The retreating army's crossing of the Berezina was particularly brutal; nearly half of the 50,000 troops on the east side of the river didn't make it to the west bank.

Minard's map is an amazing visual representation of what happened to Napoleon's army on this ill-fated campaign; it is stunning and horrifying.  Read it and weep - perhaps literally.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Another Mass Killing

Three days ago a young man armed with with a pistol, a shotgun, and an assault rifle opened fire in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, killing 12 people and wounding 58.  The shooter was captured almost immediately.  His motives are unclear at this time, although it seems fairly obvious that he has mental problems.  The country is shocked, horrified, surprised. 

Not me.

This is the United States.  Mass shootings and multiple murders have become part of our life.  They should be expected at this point.  Mentally unstable mass killers pop up every few months, like tornadoes do.  They're part of the American fabric.  Too bad, but that's the way it is.

Why are these mass killings so common in the U. S.?  Hell if I know.  I mean, we love our guns more than any other developed nation on Earth, and it's easier to arm yourself here than almost anywhere else on the planet.  And we don't seem to value mental health care as much as some other countries.  But that doesn't really explain it.  I don't know, except that killing as many fellow citizens as you can seems to be as American as baseball at this point.

I'm not quite sure why I'm writing this.  I'm not calling for stricter gun laws.  I personally think that would be a good idea, but it ain't gonna happen.  I might as well plead for laws banning tornadoes. 

I'm not shocked by this attack.  I'm actually surprised that people seem so surprised.  It's happened many times before; it will happen many times again.  When I read this in a year, there will have been several more "shocking" mass killings. 

It's America.  Get used to it.