Wednesday, December 16, 2009

George Baquet

In the last 24 hours, I've listened to complete recorded works of George Baquet, the New Orleans Creole clarinetist who lived from 1883 to 1949. Not that it was time-consuming - Baquet only made four or five issued sessions. His playing fascinates me, although I suspect that many listeners will probably find it less than enthralling.

Baquet was the clarinetist with the legendary Creole Band, which was led by bassist Bill Johnson and which was extremely successful in vaudeville well before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made the first jazz records in 1917. (Larry Gushee's Pioneers of Jazz tells their story in detail.) He settled in Philadelphia in 1923 and spent the rest of his life there.

Baquet was the son of the well-respected New Orleans clarinetist Theogene Baquet, who taught George and his brother Achille, also a professional clarinetist. The Baquets were Creoles, with French and African ancestry; I've always thought that it was an interesting statement on the meaning of racial identity that, when they came of age, George decided to be black and Achille decided to be white. Achille played and recorded with Jimmy Durante's New Orleans Jazz Band in 1918-1919; Durante felt obliged on at least one occasion to deny the rumors that his clarinetist was, in fact, black.

Brian Rust's jazz discography credits Baquet with the clarinet work on Bessie Smith's October 15, 1923 session. The booklet of the Columbia Complete Sessions Vol. 1 booklet is more cautious: George Baquet or Ernest Elliott. The clarinet is prominent on "Whoa, Tillie, Take Your Time," and it certainly sounds like it could be Baquet, based on his later recordings.

Baquet shows up again on Jelly Roll Morton's three July, 1929 big band sessions. This is Jelly's touring band with Baquet added, probably because Morton and Baquet were old friends and because the recordings were made in Camden, New Jersey, just across the river from Philly. Baquet sounds kind of odd in this context. Morton's arrangements were not state-of-the-art, like Ellington's or Don Redman's, but they were fairly modern for the time. Baquet sounds like he stepped out of another era. He's got the odd, old-fashioned tone that many older New Orleans clarinetists exhibit, derived at least partly from the double-lip embouchure (no teeth on the mouthpiece) they used. His articulation is also very 19th-century, and he doesn't really swing at all, at least in the way jazz musicians were expected to by 1929.

All that being said, I love these recordings. The contrast between the up-to-date band and the antique clarinet style just kills me, although it doesn't make any sense objectively. "New Orleans Bump" in particular is a delight - Baquet has a very cool flutter-tongued solo.

John Reid made some informal recordings of Baquet in 1940 that were released on an American Music CD, The John Reid Collection, in 1992. There are two selections by the jivey swing band Baquet was leading at the time; he plays clarinet and tenor sax in the ensembles, but lets the younger guys take the solos. But Reid also recorded two amazing documents - a slow blues on clarinet with just the rhythm section accompanying, and another version of the same blues with Baquet's former student Sidney Bechet added on soprano sax. Like some other early Creole musicians (Peter Bocage comes to mind) Baquet treats the blues as a chord progression rather than as a style; his playing is somewhat formal and detached. This must be how some of the earliest New Orleans blues sounded. When Bechet is added, Baquet ups his ante somewhat; without really changing his style, his playing becomes hotter and more involved. He and Bechet trade choruses; each plays beautiful, spare accompaniments to the other's melodies.

I love George Baquet's playing - not just for what it is, but for what it represents. Hearing his clarinet is like catching a glimpse of the light from a distant star - one we know has burned out, but whose light still reaches us. In his music we hear those first, halting steps of the musicians who first put together the music we call jazz.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Shameless Plug

I've been busy, but I've got a couple of longer posts waiting in the wings, not quite ready to be revealed. But in the meantime....

The new CD by the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra, East Atlanta Passover Stomp, has been reviewed at the All About Jazz website - check it out. Immodesty compels me to point out that the "Dolgo Horo" saxophone solo the reviewer attributes to tenorist Ben Davis is actually me on alto (Ben has several great solos on the CD, though), and that two of the compositions on the album are mine. You can buy multiple copies of the CD at the band's website, my website, or at CDBaby.

Friday, November 13, 2009


There's a new Von Freeman album out. In a just world, this would mean that the legendary 87-year-old Chicago tenor saxophonist would be making the rounds of the talk shows - playing on Good Morning America and trading quips with Letterman and Leno; the news would be splashed on the arts sections of every paper in the country. As it is, Von Freeman's audience is a minority within a minority; a small subsection of the already small jazz audience. How many people are going to notice a new Freeman album?

Twenty years or so ago, my band of the time, the Bazooka Ants, opened Chicago Day at the Atlanta Jazz Festival, for some reason - we certainly had no link to Chicago. I guess we were picked because we were kind of avant-garde, but also accessible - a good lead-in to the first two of the Chicago acts that filled the rest of the day: Douglas Ewart's clarinet ensemble (with Anthony Braxton) and the Art Ensemble of Chicago. It was an amazing day, and seeing/hearing the Art Ensemble's set from the side of the stage was like going to church. But the highlight was the appearance of Von Freeman. I was standing near Ewart and Roscoe Mitchell while Von was deep into a medium-up tune on Rhythm changes. Mitchell turned to Ewart, laughed and shook his head, and said, "Now that's a real saxophone player!"

Freeman's playing is unusual and highly individual; he has a very personal tone, sense of rhythm, and style of phrasing, as well a flexibility with pitch which allows him to bend notes "into the cracks" between the tempered pitches of Western music. His music is so interesting and moving in part because he's always improvising. That may seem like a simplistic thing to say about a jazz musician - isn't that what they all do? But so many "improvising" musicians are just recycling their licks; it's easy to predict what they're going to play next. Not so with Von - he continually takes the music in surprising and unexpected directions. His version of "Footprints," from Live at the Dakota, is as strange and beautiful as any music I've ever heard. His tortured phrases slide around and between the pitches of the chromatic scale, and he plays with amazing drive and intensity - he was a mere 73 years old at the time. And his spoken introduction to the tune is both funny and sobering - I'll let you track down the album and check it out yourself.

Von didn't record an album of his own until he almost 50. What is often considered his best record was made a couple of years after that - Have No Fear came out on Nessa, Chuck Nessa's label. (Disclaimer - While we've never met, Mr. Nessa and I are slightly acquainted through the tubes of the internet.) Nessa's output has been small, but uncompromisingly excellent - 25 or so albums over the past 30 years. Nessa's latest release is Vonski Speaks, by Freeman and the quartet that accompanies him on his regular Tuesday night gig at the New Apartment Lounge in Chicago. The CD is both joyous and achingly beautiful. On the uptempo title cut, Von's phrases often begin like conventional bebop phrases before they are twisted into unexpected directions, ending on unusual notes. I was less than excited to see yet another recorded version of "Summertime," but this is the most challenging reading of the Gershwin song I've ever heard, with the possible exception of Albert Ayler's. The young band which accompanies him is worthy of Freeman's great performance; I imagine playing with Von stretches them to play above themselves. This is great jazz.

Maybe I'm reading too much into this album, but to me Freeman's work on Vonski Speaks perfectly captures both the wonder and brevity of our moment on this planet - it reminds us that life is complex, beautiful, and short. While we and Von are still on this side of the grass, hear his music. Von Freeman is a national treasure.

Monday, November 2, 2009


After numerous delays, we finally had the first rehearsal for the Alec Wilder concert yesterday....

For several years, I have wanted to present a concert of the music of Alec Wilder, that most unusual American composer. His amazing music is not as well known as it should be, perhaps because he is so unclassifiable. Wilder wrote some of the best songs in the "Great American Songbook," even if "While We're Young," "I'll Be Around," "Blackberry Winter," and "Moon and Sand" are not as widely known as the songs of Gershwin or Cole Porter.

But after years in the pop music business, Wilder began composing "classical" music, often for wind instruments. Again, this music is not widely known among classical listeners, but instrumentalists love it - Wilder's classical music is melodic, challenging, and fun to play. He wrote for musicians he liked - Julius Baker, Harvey Phillips, Donald Sinta - and just gave his scores away, not charging the recipients, and often not keeping a copy of the music for himself.

Although Wilder was by no means a jazz musician, much of his work was touched by jazz. He first gained fame by composing and recording a series of octets with titles like "Sea Fugue Mama," "It's Silk, Feel It!," and "Jack, This is My Husband." These pieces were written for woodwinds and a rhythm section which included harpsichord. They're not really jazz, not quite pop, and not exactly classical. They're totally Wilder, though.

And he wrote pieces like "Jazz Waltz for a Friend" for the great Marian McPartland. "Jazz Waltz" is strange, twisted, but ultimately logical. I wanted to play it for the concert, but was unable to find the sheet music. So I transcribed it from McPartland's first recording of the tune. It took me three days and gave me nightmares, literally - I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about those chords. But the odd harmonies and 38-bar structure make sense in the end.

At our rehearsal, we stumbled and felt our way through the tunes, but music started to emerge. When the other members of Standard Deviation, Scott, Janna, and Ben, began to rehearse what is perhaps my favorite Wilder song, "Blackberry Winter," I was somewhat overcome. I had only heard this song on recordings, never in person. That halting first attempt was so beautiful that it literally brought a tear to my eye. At the same time, I was chagrined and disappointed - the three of them sounded so perfect together on the song that I realized I shouldn't play on it. So I won't be playing my favorite Alec Wilder tune at the concert.

That concert, by the way, will be February 6 at the First Existentialist Congregation (The Old Stone Church) in Atlanta. It will feature Wilder's songs performed by Standard Deviation as well as some of his classical pieces - in particular the Clarinet Sonata performed by Sandy Wade. I'll keep everyone informed.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Copenhagen Report

My wonderful wife Karen had a meeting in Copenhagen, and I kind of invited myself along. I mean, how often am I going to get a chance to go to Copenhagen? Here’s my brief report on the trip. It will be totally uninteresting to people who don’t know my or to those who are well-travelled. You can skip this post. But for my friends who want to know what I’ve been up to for a week:

It’s amazing that we can fly across the ocean in a day, but there’s no denying that jamming a bunch of people into a tube for nine hours is a pretty brutal way to travel. But a grueling flight to Paris left us with enough time between planes to find a geocache near Charles De Gaulle Airport. What better way to stretch our legs and set foot on French soil?

A few hours later, we were working our way through the Copenhagen airport, trying to figure out how to get to our hotel. There were plenty of the usual missteps one makes when in a new city for the first time, but soon we were settled in. The next day (Monday) would be the only full day we had together, so decided to put another country under our belts and took the train to Malmö, the third largest city in Sweden. Considering that the third-largest city in the U.S. is the huge Chicago, Malmö seemed pretty small and sleepy, but it was a nice little town. We walked around for awhile to get our bearings, and ate a nice Indian meal on Lilla Torg, a beautiful old square. I (of course) added Sweden to the list of countries I’ve geocached in. Perhaps the highlight of our short trip to Malmö was a visit to St. Peter’s Church, where construction began in the 14th century. The roof was originally painted with Biblical and allegorical scenes, but was whitewashed over in the 16th century. The Merchant’s Chapel, however, was added in the 15th century and shortly thereafter sealed off as redundant, so the roof paintings survived. They’re pretty amazing – somewhat faded, but the haunted faces of Christ and the medieval knights still communicate across the centuries.

Back in Copenhagen, we walked the length of the Strøget, a series of streets given over to pedestrians. It ranges from fascinating to tacky. At the end of the Strøget, we walked past the Royal Theatre to Nyhavn, the beautiful “new harbor” neighborhood where the canal is lined with restaurants. Karen picked out a tiny place called Havfruen (Mermaid), where we had a great meal. After one more drink on the way back, we called it a day.

Some general impressions: To an American, this is just a beautiful old city – interesting buildings, squares, and canals all over the place. Bicycles everywhere. There are probably as many bicycles as cars on the streets, and they are left parked all over the place, often without being locked. Everyone seems to smoke, although it’s not allowed inside most places any more. Danish women all seem beautiful and about seven feet tall. And the language makes absolutely no sense to an outsider. Spanish or French is easy to pronounce, at least, when you know the rules. Karen had a short Danish lesson as part of her meeting and tried to explain some things to me, but it seemed pretty random. Just about everyone speaks English, though, and will quickly switch to it when they realize that you don’t speak Danish.

On Tuesday, Karen and I left the hotel early so that she could check in for her meeting. I spent a few hours walking, record shopping, and geocaching. I bought lunch from one of the pølser (hot dog) stands, where I got a Danish hot dog that rivaled one of Chicago’s for unusual toppings – along with spicy mustard, it had bacon bits and pickles. It was great. I found a cache at the Rundetårn, the “Round Tower” built in the 17th century. I was amused by the description on the cache page, on which one of the cache hiders related how, when she was a child, she was convinced that the Rundetårn was the tallest building in the world – she had read about skyscrapers in America, and thought that they must be almost as tall.

That night I heard Jesper Thilo’s very creative quartet at Jazz Paradise in the Huset arts complex. It’s the same for jazz musicians everywhere – they played the first set for an audience of three. However, from the first note, they played as if their lives depended on it – with mastery, concentration, and interaction. Thilo’s tenor sax sound was rich and beautiful, and he swung hard. Even if his playing was not particularly original, it reminded me of how rewarding unadorned straight-ahead jazz can still be. Olivier Antunes took things in odd directions during his piano solos, and bassist Bo Stief deserved a medal for following him at least 90% of the time. The drummer, Frands Rifbjerg, was solid as a rock. Thilo’s selection of tunes was a little old-fashioned by American standards, for the most part, but he did play Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” along with “Thou Swell” and “Strike Up the Band.” A rewarding evening – and the audience swelled to eight during the second set!

On Wednesday, Karen was able to get away from her meeting to sightsee with me in the morning. She showed me around Slotsholmen, the small island which was the original center of Copenhagen. (She had been given a tour the day before.) Then we took the harbor bus (a ferry, basically) across to the Christianshavn section of the city. After walking along one of the canals, she had to return to her meeting, so I explored Christianshavn for the rest of the morning. It seems a little more “real” and working-class than the other parts of Copenhagen I visited. There were very few signs or menus in English in this section of town. I paid 25 kroner for the privilege of climbing to the top of the spire of Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church). In the States, this would be a risk management officer’s nightmare. There are 500 steps to the top. The first 350 are inside and wooden; they get steeper, narrower, darker, and more rickety as you ascend. The final 150 steps wind around the outside of the tower and continue to get narrower to the top. It was fairly terrifying, but the view was great.

I then visited the “free city” of Christiana, a section of Christianshavn centered around some abandoned military barracks and which was taken over in 1971 by a group of (for lack of a better word) hippies. The settlers declared the area independent of Copenhagen, and the settlement has existed in an uneasy truce with the city government since. Maybe I’m showing my age or conventionality, but this was an extremely depressing area. It just seemed dirty and unkempt; it was the only part of Copenhagen I visited which was littered with trash. I was glad to leave it behind and take a nice walk along the moat on the eastern side of the island.

More strolling, more sightseeing. The highlight of Thursday was a visit to the National Museum, which had so many amazing displays that I soon began to suffer from “museum fatigue” – one bronze age tool started to look like another. I’d love to go back and spend about a week in this museum. Then it was time to move to a hotel close to the airport, since I had a 6:00 AM flight the next morning. The TV didn’t work in my downtown hotel, so the main revelation from my last evening in Denmark was that Danish TV is as bad as American TV, except that you can see breasts in commercials.

Copenhagen is a beautiful place. I already want to go back, and take my horn. I hope I have the chance.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everybody's Talking About Sammy

In reading interviews with old New Orleans musicians, names of great, unrecorded trumpet players like Buddy Bolden, Buddy Petit, and Chris Kelly keep coming up. But the band that inspires awe, admiration, and even fear in those interviews is Sam Morgan's Jazz Band, which recorded eight titles for Columbia Records in 1927. Those 24 minutes of music represent some of the most exciting New Orleans jazz ever put down.

Sam Morgan's was a musical family; he and his brother Isiah played cornet in the band, another brother, Andrew, played clarinet and tenor sax, and brother Al was an accomplished bassist. (Al Morgan went north and made a name for himself before the band recorded.) Alto saxophonist Earl Fouche and Big Jim Robinson on trombone were the other horns on the Columbia records, and a strong four-piece rhythm section provided the foundation. That rhythm section drives the band like a diesel engine, playing a strong four beats to the bar, as opposed to the two-beat rhythm of many "dixieland" bands.

The whole band swings very hard, and surprisingly makes no concessions to the fashions of popular music at large, unless you consider the presence of saxophones in the ensemble a trendy 1920s element. (I don't.) Compare the Morgans' approach to other New Orleans bands who recorded around the same time: Oscar Celestin's band or the Halfway House Orchestra, for instance. Those band were adopting the scored ensemble passages and "modern" harmonies of the northern bands of the time, but not the Morgan band. They continued to play old-style New Orleans improvised polyphony.

The tunes are mostly originals; the most impressive as a composition is "Bogalousa Stomp," a multi-strain piece which is still played fairly frequently by New Orleans bands. (Kermit Ruffins has recorded a nice version.) Sam Morgan sings "Everybody's Talking About Sammy" and the racy "Short Dress Gal" in a rough, cawing voice; I can only understand some of the words. In addition to the jazz stomps, the band also recorded three spirituals; they were the first jazz band to do so. "Sing On" and "Over in the Gloryland" are still played by New Orleans jazz and brass bands; I don't know whether this is because the Morgan recordings were influential or because the tunes have always been popular in the city. There is a touching passage in "Down by the Riverside when all the instruments except the piano drop out and some of the band sing the spiritual in harmony. It's a beautiful down-home moment from this swinging group.

The Morgan recordings, particularly the spirituals, also demonstrate the cross-pollination that was going on between the jazz bands (which played mostly for dancing) and the brass bands which played on the street. On "Sing On" and "Gloryland," the band is basically playing brass band style with a rhythm section. Take away the trap set, string bass, piano, and banjo and replace them with tuba, snare drum, and bass drum, and this band could have played the same notes at a funeral parade.

Perhaps the most impressive musician in the band was alto saxophonist Earl Fouche. He never recorded again, and that's something of a tragedy, because he really shines on the Morgan sides. He's all over the place - doubling the first cornet, harmonizing with the cornets, playing countermelodies, and contributing killer solos to "Mobile Stomp" and "Bogalousa Strut." Fouche obviously had a real command of the saxophone and of harmony, something that can't be said of everyone in the band. (You'll hear some poor note choices by Andrew Morgan in "Over in the Gloryland" and a spectacularly wrong note by Jim Robinson in the introduction to "Steppin' on the Gas," where he plays a D against an A flat major chord.) Based on these eight recordings, Fouche was probably the best saxophonist in New Orleans during that period.

Ill health dogged Sam Morgan, and the band fell apart when he died in the mid 1930s. Only Robinson, Andrew Morgan, and bassist Sidney Brown recorded commercially after this, and only Jim Robinson really gained any fame. Brother Isiah continued to play, and a field recording made at a dance in Mississippi in the 1950s showed him to be an able, swinging, but unspectacular trumpeter. There have been several recorded tributes to the Morgan band, but by far the best is the Sam Morgan Revisited session made under Kid Howard's name for the Icon label. The record was reissued on the Jazzology family of labels, and features five absolutely smoking versions of Morgan's tunes. The band includes Jim Robinson and Andrew Morgan, as well as other musicians who played with Sam Morgan at various times, but who weren't on the Columbia sessions. They play with an abandon which makes this session one of the most exciting of the so-called "New Orleans Revival" of the sixties.

The eight Morgan sides have been reissued on Azure and Jazz Oracle CDs, and probably elsewhere. I'll always be grateful that they jammed into the upstairs room of Werlein's Music Store on Canal Street to play into the inadequate recording equipment of the time. The myth that all the good musicians left New Orleans by 1920 is blown out of the water by these stirring, amazing 24 minutes of music.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

New Website

I've finished the new website, at least in its preliminary form - I plan to keep adding to it and improving it. But if you visit you'll be able to keep up with where I'm playing, download strange music (including a couple of tracks by the semi-legendary Bazooka Ants), and buy lots of CDs. Check it out.


It's been a strange and intense week. I've dealt with angry and irrational people on my day job, worked obsessively to get my new website up, practiced the saxophone and clarinet with satisfaction and frustration, and presented a new band.

The debut of the new Jeff Crompton Quartet at Atlanta's Eyedrum Gallery tonight was sloppy and intense, and the audience seemed to enjoy it. The band was exhausted afterwards, which I take as a good sign. I think we certainly have potential. We play the kind of free jazz that relies on listening, interaction, and instinct, and we're just going to have to play together for awhile before things really start to jell. The musicians in the audience tonight didn't hear all the mistakes that we felt and heard, so I think the spirit of the music prevailed over the sloppiness. Thank you Keith, Bill and Ben.

Now I'm trying to come down with Steve Lacy. The last tune on the Live in Budapest duet album with Steve Potts is "Morning Joy," based on the Bob Kaufman poem of the same name. It's a strange and wonderful poem, which I memorized about 15
years ago. Here it is from memory - the line breaks and punctuation might not be quite right, but I've got the words:

Piano buttons stitched on morning lights;
Jazz wakes with the day.
As I awaken with jazz,
Love lit the night.

Eyes appear and disappear
To lead me once more
To a green moon.

Streets paved with opal sadness
Lead me counterclockwise
To pockets of joy
And jazz.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Please Stand By....

As has been pointed out, I don't post to this blog that often - about four times a month seems to be the rate I've settled into. I've been thinking about music (and other things) just as much as ever, but I've been putting lots of time into my new quartet (which makes its debut at Eyedrum Gallery in Atlanta in four days) and into my new website. I hope to have the website up and running by the time the quartet hits the stage on Friday. It will have info on my musical activities, free downloadable tracks, and (of course) CDs for sale. Stay tuned.

And thanks to everyone who has found their way to this blog. I hope you've found something you enjoy, and I hope you'll come back.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

All Around Man

Lexington, Mississippi bluesman Lonnie Pitchford died of AIDS in 1998, a month beyond his 43rd birthday. If you've read the chapter on Pitchford in Robert Nicholson's book Mississippi Blues Today!, you might find it amazing that he lived as long as he did. Nicholson recounts, in jaw-dropping fashion, his unsuccesful attempt to keep up with the hard-living, pleasure-seeking Pitchford for 24 hours. Nicholson's night with Pitchford involved copious amounts of lying and alcohol, refueled by a visit to the bootlegger in the middle of the night. Although Pitchford stayed up until dawn drinking, Nicholson was amazed that he was up at 9:00 AM with a bottle of Colt 45 and Oprah on the TV.

At the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale one year (I don't quite remember which) in the early nineties, Pitchford was all over the place - performing, listening, helping out, wandering around. And every time I saw him, he always seemed pretty drunk. But he was incredibly patient with one of his mentors, Eugene Powell, who recorded before World War II as Sonny Boy Nelson. The very elderly Powell was still able to play sing his blues and play guitar, but was no longer able to tune his instrument. When Pitchford realized that Powell was having trouble, he mounted the stage, tuned his teacher's guitar, and handed it back. Powell, probably acting on instinct, immediately reached out and turned one of the tuning pegs, destroying the younger man's work. Pitchford sighed, took the guitar back, and retuned it.

Pitchford's other mentor was the great Robert Lockwood, Jr., often called "Robert Junior" Lockwood, since his mother was the girlfriend of Robert Johnson. Many bluesmen hung around Robert Johnson and picked up licks and techniques. Lockwood was, however, apparently the only musician whom Johnson taught directly. He learned well, amplified Johnson's lessons (listen to "Talk a Little Walk With Me" from Lockwood's first recording session in 1941), and, years later, passed the lessons on to Lonnie. The beautiful "See See Rider" from Pitchford's only full-length album, All Around Man, illustrates the Lockwood influence on Lonnie's playing.

The name of that Rooster Blues album is appropriate - not only because Pitchford performs Bo Carter's wonderfully dirty song of the same name, but because he covers so many musical bases. When he first came to the attention of the larger blues community, Pitchford was known for two things: his moving, virtuoso performances on the "diddley bow," the one-string guitar, and for his precise and passionate renditions of Robert Johnson's songs. All Around Man presents Pitchford in those two settings, as well as the Robert Lockwood-influenced style mentioned above, the haunting hill country style he apparently learned from his father, as a modern blues electric guitarist in front of a band, and even as a jazz/funk soloist (on Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto"). And he's the best of the three bassists that appear on the album. He sounds totally natural and convincing on all of this. The only setting in which he disappoints is as a jazzy piano soloist; he doesn't have either the chops or musical knowledge to make much of "My Sunny," his simplification of the Bobby Hebb tune.

Although All Around Man is his only album, Pitchford contributed tracks to the German "Living Country Blues" series (partially reissued on Evidence), the concert that produced the Columbia album Roots of Rhythm & Blues: A Tribute to the Robert Johnson Era, the Deep Blues soundtrack, and volume one of the National Downhome Blues Festival albums on Southland. But one of my most highly prized records is an LP of gorgeous Mississippi gospel by The Star Lite Singers. One of the Star Lites was the Rev. Charles Pitchford; he recruited his brother to play guitar and bass on their Footprint of Jesus album. I bought this record in Clarksdale around 1992; I suspect that not many people outside of Mississippi have heard it. Lonnie doesn't solo, but every shuffle rhythm and fill he plays is just perfect.

Charles officiated at his brother's funeral when the end came. Years ago, I read an online account of the service, but it has since been lost somewhere in the tubes of the interweb. But from what I remember, Rev. Pitchford's funeral sermon was unapologetic, even defiant, about his brother's lifestyle, taking the position that Lonnie was given the talent to play and sing the blues by God, and that he followed his path as well he was able. With any great artist, it's hard to know how much we can separate the man and music. If Lonnie Pitchford hadn't lived so fast and so hard, maybe his music wouldn't be so moving. But, hearing "See See Rider," "Lonesome Blues," or "Don't You Do That No More," it's hard not to regret the mode of living that brought early death to such a talent.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Jimmy Giuffre (1921-2008) was on a different level than the general run of jazz musicians; he was one of those rare individuals who could create a musical universe or change the direction of a piece with one note. Giuffre ranks so highly in my esteem that his death, like Steve Lacy's passing, is still a little difficult for me to process; I have to force myself to realize that we no longer share the same planet.

My first encounter with Jimmy Giuffre's music came when I was in the eighth or ninth grade and was invited to attend the first rehearsal of my high school's newly formed "stage band." The school’s band director, Leon Cole, was remarkably visionary and open-eared, and was anxious to expose us to as many different types of music as possible. He really didn't know how to teach us improvisation, but it was at that rehearsal that I became aware of the concept. And Mr. Cole brought in a couple of books to teach us jazz style and phrasing. One was by Lennie Niehaus, if I remember correctly, but the other was Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation by Jimmy Giuffre, published in 1969.

The exercises in the Giuffre book were odd, conceptual, and difficult. We quickly gave up on it and concentrated on the Niehaus method. But I took my copy of the Giuffre home, and pored over it. It was way beyond me at the time, but I was fascinated, particularly by the final exercise, which was atonal and written without barlines. Several years ago I found another copy, and I still find it very challenging.

Jimmy Giuffre first came to the attention of the larger jazz world when Woody Herman recorded his "Four Brothers" back in 1947. The piece featured a saxophone section of unusual instrumentation: three tenors and a baritone. The first recording, featuring Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Herbie Steward, and Serge Chaloff, was enough of a musical and commercial success that Herman played the piece for the rest of his life, and used the three-tenors-and-a-bari sax section from then on.

Although Giuffre was active in a variety of settings in the late forties and early fifties, he only found his true musical personality with a series recordings for Atlantic Records and with the formation of The Jimmy Giuffre 3 in the middle of that decade. The first Atlantic recording, The Jimmy Giuffre Clarinet, exhibited the unusual, breathy sound that Giuffre had developed on that instrument. During this period he played the clarinet almost exclusively in the lower register, which led to one of the great sarcastic putdowns of jazz history; when it was announced that Giuffre would be teaching at the Lenox School of Jazz, critic Andre Hodier asked, "Who will be teaching the upper register?"

But a more important aspect of the Clarinet album was the variety and imagination of the settings which Giuffre composed or arranged for himself. It was obvious that Giuffre considered himself a composer as much as an instrumentalist. And although he contributed works to various large ensemble projects during this period, his most important compositional canvas was The 3, with Jim Hall on guitar and Ralph Pena on bass. This group was highly controversial at the time, in part because it didn't include a drummer. Giuffe had become increasingly dissatisfied with the role of drums in jazz, and had experimented (unsuccessfully, in my opinion) with an approach wherein the drummer played fills, but dispensed with conventional timekeeping. But those with ears to hear found the Jimmy Giuffre 3 a particularly intelligent and heartening example of that blending of composition and improvisation which was one of the overlooked subtexts of jazz in the 1950s. Pieces like "The Train and the River" and "Two Kinds of Blues" are good examples of the best work of this group.

When Pena left, Giuffre couldn't find another bassist that suited him, so he added valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer as the third member of the group. On the surface, this seemed like an even more radical instrumentation, but in reality this version of The 3 swung harder, while taking even more chances compositionally. Their definitive album paired Giuffre's four-part "Western Suite" with wonderful, loose versions of "Topsy" and "Blue Monk."

Toward the end of the fifties, and possibly influenced by some of the criticism he was receiving, Giuffre became unhappy with the direction of his music. The playing of Monk and Sonny Rollins seemed more direct and emotional to him, and he drifted for awhile before getting his bearings again. During this period he recorded a live album with Hall on guitar and a hard-swinging rhythm section. It didn't quite work, and critic Max Harrison has blamed the rhythm section, saying that they didn't understand what Giuffre needed. Harrison is the critic I most admire, and I hate to disagree with him, but it's obvious to me that Giuffre is forcing; he's trying to play hard and emotionally, but it's equally obvious to me that he's not being himself.

The answer came with the formation of a new Jimmy Giuffre 3 in 1961. Pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow were Giuffre's new partners; during the short life of the group they recorded three studio albums and impacted jazz in ways which only became apparent in retrospect. The new trio played music in which tonality, conventional jazz rhythms, and closed structures were only options, not givens. The result was a sometimes atonal jazz chamber music which, to many listeners, seemed to have more in common with contemporary classical music than jazz. Although influential and widely praised (musicians as diverse as Evan Parker and Joe McPhee have talked about this group’s impact on them), they never attracted much of an audience; Steve Swallow has written that they disbanded after a gig on which they each made 35 cents.

Giuffre continued playing uncompromising, individual free jazz with various partners. One of the few recorded examples of The 3 from later in the decade is a 1965 Paris set; it can be found on a French CD. With Don Friedman and Barre Phillips, Giuffre plays fearless, abstract music. The audience quickly loses patience and makes its displeasure known, but the hisses and catcalls seem to spur Giuffre on to new heights; he improvises with great intensity on both saxophone and clarinet.

In the seventies he continued to play with Paul Bley at times (Quiet Song is particularly beautiful) and lead his own groups, usually with bass and drums. He formed a new 4 (he didn't seem to care for the terms "trio" and "quartet") after hearing Weather Report and being impressed with its palette of electronic sounds. The new group included Pete Levin on synthesizers and keyboards and made three albums for Soul Note. Although my friend Robo finds the keyboard sounds too dated to enjoy this group, I like their music, which combines the lyrical feel of Giuffre's early 3 with a new strength and excitement.

Jimmy Giuffre continued to perform and record until the early nineties. Some of the most intriguing later work is by the reunited trio of Giuffre, Bley and Swallow. They made four albums between 1989 and 1993, and it's interesting to hear what elements of their earlier music they retained and which they discarded or reconsidered. Much of their later work was completely improvised, and they often broke into duets or solos.

Parkinson's Disease finally made it impossible for Giuffre to perform, and like all Parkinson's sufferers, he continued to decline until his death a couple of years ago. He left an amazing body of work, though. And he still kicks my ass every couple of days when I attempt to practice out of Jazz Phrasing and Interpretation.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Wisdom From Jeffery...

...for all the world to read and marvel at....

Music is the healing force of the universe.
Albert Ayler

Music is just a bunch of noise that doesn't mean anything.
Thanks to one of Atlanta's great drummers, John Lewis, for this one.

All the rest are mine.

Ancient bullshit is still bullshit.

Popular bullshit is still bullshit.

Science is a flawed and incomplete means of understanding the world, but at least it knows that.

No musician is self-taught, and all musicians are self-taught.

People are basically good.
People are basically evil.
People are basically indifferent.
All of the above are true.

People instinctively feel that they need enemies. Too bad.

American culture owes so much to the enslavement of West Africans early in our history. This is a hard fact to take on many levels, but it's true.

A generalization: The more sure someone is that he knows what God wants, the nastier, more unpleasant, and downright scary he tends to be.

You work with what you've got - in music and in anything else.

Monday, September 7, 2009


Well, I'm kind of depressed. One of New Orleans' (and the world's) greatest dive-bars-with-music has closed. Sometime in August, the New Orleans music magazine Offbeat posted a note on their website:

Jimbeaux’s on Frenchmen Street formerly known as the Spotted Cat will be closed until further notice.

The Spotted Cat couldn't really be called a music club; it was a seedy bar with a bandstand. Every time I visited the Cat, it was jam-packed with music lovers, tourists, barflies, alcoholics, and folks from the neighborhood. And there was always great music coming from the tiny bandstand: The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Washboard Chaz and his trio, The Psister Sisters, Loose Marbles. But trouble was in the air this past Spring. The stories are confusing and conflicting, but apparently one of the owners of the place was difficult to get along with, and the landlord was reluctant to renew the lease. For a month or two the bar continued to operate under the name Jimbeaux's, but amid rumors that one of the owners hit the other in the head with a hammer, the place closed its doors this summer.

The Spotted Cat was always a lively place, but every Friday evening between 6:30 and 9:30, it became the center of the universe. That's when the Panorama Jazz Band made their weekly appearance on the bandstand. My friend Robo introduced me to the Panorama, and I'll always be grateful - they are one of my favorite New Orleans bands. The six-or-seven member group, led by clarinetist Ben Schenck, plays traditional jazz, klezmer tunes, Caribbean songs, Bulgarian dances - music from the Creole and Jewish diaspora. The Friday night listeners, partiers, and drinkers at the Spotted Cat didn't seem to care where the music came from from, or whether the tune was a New Orleans rhumba, a meringue from Martinique, or a seven-eight hora from eastern Europe. They danced and cheered to it all.

But while the Spotted Cat is gone, the Panorama Jazz Band lives on. They now have 14 years of experience and three CDs under their belt, and the latest album, Come Out Swingin', shows them sounding better than ever. The "rhythm section," which is perhaps an arbitrary distinction in a New Orleans band, consists of banjo, accordion, tuba, and drums, and they make the jazz tunes and odd klezmer rhythms sound equally natural. Schenck is partnered in the "front line" (again, a somewhat meaningless division), by trombone and, for the last couple of years, by the fiery alto sax of Aurora Nealand.

The Panorama's tunes are carefully worked out and rehearsed; I don't know if they are ever arranged on paper, but the band doesn't use charts on the bandstand. There are no real virtuosos in the band, except for "accordionist emeritus" Patrick Farrell, who played on the first two albums and makes a guest appearance on the new one. And the improvised solos are functional, rather than inspiring, for the most part. But none of that matters - the Panorama Jazz Band is more than the sum of its parts. It all works wonderfully - wherever the song is from, the Panorama somehow makes it sound like swinging New Orleans jazz while retaining the original flavor of the tune.

There is also a street version of the band, the Panorama Brass Band, which plays the Krewe de Vieux Mardi Gras parade every year, among other events. Each of the last two Panorama albums has included a few cuts by the brass band. Yeah, they play the traditional New Orleans brass band tunes like "Down in Honky Tonk Town," but they also play Balkan Gypsy tunes and Ravel's "Bolero." They don't sound quite like any other brass band in New Orleans.

I'm not trying to make a case that the Panorama Jazz Band is the best band in New Orleans, or that they'll go down in jazz history, or anything like that. But they're accomplished, unique, and a lot of fun. Catch them if you can.

Monday, August 31, 2009


This post represents my attempt to sum up Louis Armstrong in a few paragraphs. That can't be done, of course, and the result is so simplistic that any readers who are at all familiar with Armstrong and his genius can safely ignore what follows. I've found, though, that many jazz listeners, and even musicians, don't understand what all the fuss is about - they consider Louis old-fashioned at best.

At some point in my high school band career, I was given the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award for being the best jazz musician in the school. However, that wasn't saying much in the semi-rural school I attended - it's not like there was a lot of competition. But it got me thinking, perhaps for the first time, about the paradox of Louis Armstrong.

When I was a kid (and still today), the most powerful AM radio station in Atlanta was WSB. But while WSB is now a talk radio station featuring unreflective right-wing mouths, it used to be the adult "easy listening" station. And I'll admit that I kind of liked it as a kid, and that I learned a lot from listening to it. They played crap like Lennie Dee and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass, but they also played Benny Goodman and Dave Brubeck. And they played Louis Armstrong records: "Mack the Knife," "Cabaret," and "Blueberry Hill."

By the time I was playing in my high school's "stage band," as school big bands were usually called in those days, I vaguely knew that Armstrong was supposed to be one of the jazz greats - possibly the jazz great. But I couldn't reconcile that image with the pleasant, genial music I heard by Louis on the radio - that music didn't seem like the work of a genius. Understanding and appreciating Armstrong was a slow process, and was part of the journey of appreciating and enjoying early jazz styles in general.

A little investigation, a little exploration of the records in the local library, and I started to get it. As I explored Louis' early output, I found some stunning music: "West End Blues," with its amazingly complex opening cadenza, "Potato Head Blues," with a solo that dances over a stop-time rhythm, and "Beau Koo Jack," with trumpeting as virtuosic as any ever recorded in jazz.

The late-twenties Okeh records like these, collectively known as the Hot Fives, since most of them featured that band name, are usually considered to be Armstrong's pinnacle. But the best of his slightly later recordings for the Victor label are no less amazing. These records were made with pretty mediocre big bands, and the material is mostly pop songs of the time - good ones like "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues" and lousy ones like "That's My Home." But the material is immaterial - on both of these sides Louis acheives a soaring eloquence unlike anything else in jazz; his playing on these tunes reminds me more of Beethoven than King Oliver.

The conventional wisdom is the rest of Armstrong's career represented decline and compromise. Certainly his later trumpet playing never again reached the heights of the Hot Fives and best Victors. But later recordings such as "I Double Dare You" feature brilliantly constructed improvisation with a somewhat more subdued, pared-down trumpet style. And even near the end of his career, when his ability to play the trumpet was limited, he could create solos that show his genius. I've always been struck by his playing on the 1968 "Dream a Little Dream of Me" - it's spare, using short phrases and few notes, but each note is carefully chosen and placed for maximum expressive effect. It's one the most moving of Armstrong solos.

By the time he recorded "Dream a Little Dream of Me," Louis had been fronting his constantly touring band, known as the All Stars, for 20 years or so. During this time, he became one of America's foremost entertainers; it was in this role that I first became aware of Armstrong. If it is difficult to understand how the first and greatest genius of jazz could settle for being a mere entertainer, well, that's a distinction which Louis never made for himself. In all stages of his career, he played music which he hoped people would like. Yes, his days of jazz innovation were long behind him by the time he knocked the Beatles out of the number one spot on the pop charts with "Hello Dolly," but he was still trying to create good music, and usually succeeding.

Gary Giddins' book on Armstrong, Satchmo, has chapters titled "The Artist as Entertainer" and "The Entertainer as Artist." This summarizes Louis - he was both, and didn't see a division. If you don't know Armstrong's music, check out the early masterpieces, but don't stop there. Listeners who can open themselves to Louis' music at all stages of his career will find lots of rewards waiting for them.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Real Improvising

I have a longer post waiting in the wings, but I just came across a beautiful Lee Konitz quote:

As soon as I hear myself play a melodic segment that I already know, I take the mouthpiece out. The art of improvising implies, from the first note onward, that the slate is clean. What interests me is the procedure that falls into place without premeditation. The important thing is to flee the task that's assigned to you.

I love that, particularly the paradoxical last sentence. When I read something like this, or when I hear Konitz play, I am filled with admiration. And I'm a little chagrined about my own playing. Konitz and Steve Lacy are two of my heroes, and they both exhibit the same pure esthetic in their playing. They are (or were, in Lacy's case) interested in improvising melody, not in creating excitement, not in working up the audience, and certainly not in running through predictable patterns. Lacy, unlike Konitz, sometimes ventured from melodic improvising into sound exploration, but he even did that his own way - no screaming, no "finger-wiggling," but an exploration of the saxophone's sound capabilities that was just as thoughtful as his melodic playing.

Not many players in jazz have maintained such a pure approach to improvising. There have been numerous published studies of Charlie Parker's music showing how he combined his favorite licks and devices in different ways time and time again. Parker, of course, was a genius, and his solos were so brilliantly constructed that his use of set material didn't weaken his incredible music. But we've all heard lesser players who keep coming back to the same licks. And Johnny Hodges was one of the most amazing saxophonists in the history of jazz, but he often used the same set solos every night for many tunes.

I certainly don't come close to the melodic purity of Konitz or Lacy. With the 4th Ward Afro-Klezmer Orchestra, I only get a few solos per night, and I often plan the opening phrase of a solo before I start to play. And I do resort to devices that I know will "work" - building my solo gradually to a high point, then tapering off fairly quickly, for example.

There are lots of ways to improvise, and few of us have the musical and personal strength to improvise the way Konitz does. But I've found that the closer I keep his example (as well as Lacy's), the stronger my own music is. I'll make sure to keep them close.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Happening Now

I write so much about Ancient Musik that I wanted to post something about somebody/something Happening Now in jazz that excites me. Composer/drummer John Hollenbeck's first CD as leader was issued less than ten years ago, in 2001, and his music is some of the most amazing and touching to be found in jazz today.

I was totally unfamiliar with Hollenbeck until early 2005, when RoboCromp, my duo ensemble with Rob Rushin, opened for Hollenbeck's Claudia Quintet at Eyedrum in Atlanta. As Rob and I arrived to set up, tune up, and warm up, it became obvious that Hollenbeck had not known that there was going to be an opening act and was pretty annoyed by that development. This, in turn, annoyed me, and I think that my playing that evening was informed by a certain amount of anger. But my negative feelings disappeared as soon as the Claudias started playing.

The Claudia Quintet has an unusual instrumentation: Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor sax, vibist Matt Moran, Ted Reichman on accordion, and bassist Drew Gress, in addition to Hollenbeck. Hollenbeck's music for the Claudia Quintet is highly structured; there's plenty of improvisation, but the "solos" are part of the composed web - they add to the impact of the compositions rather than stand out as virtuoso statements for their own sake. The pieces build over time and are often built from unusual musical materials and from even more unusual external inspirations. "...can you get through this life with a good heart?," from I, Claudia, was inspired (as Hollenbeck explained at the Eyedrum show) by composer Morton Feldman and songwriter Joni Mitchell. The slow-moving pointillism of the opening few minutes gives way to warm, but unusual harmonies and heart-breaking melodic fragments over a pop-ish groove. "Drewslate," from Semi-Formal, was written so that four members of the ensemble would have some difficult music to rehearse when the bassist was late to rehearsal; the bass part is simpler than the tricky parts for the other instruments.

I love an improvised piece by Hollenbeck that I thought I would hate. "No Images," the title track from his debut album, is played on his late grandmother's autoharp with a portable electric fan. Sounds like a really bad idea, but the small fan blades against the strings produce a complex soundscape, full of unexpected subharmonics.

I'm not in a position to write definitively about Hollenbeck's work because, until 24 hours ago, I somehow had not been aware that he has issued several CDs of material by his Large Ensemble big band. I'm not sure how I came to be so far behind the curve on that group, but you can be sure that I'll be checking them out. In the meantime, I think I'll put on the Claudia Quintet again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

More About Flannery O'Connor

During my recent visit to Andalusia, I learned that Flannery O'Connor's bedroom, where she did her writing, has been left pretty much untouched after her death. Her desk and typewriter were moved to the Flannery O'Connor Room of Georgia College and replicas brought to her room at Andalusia, but everything else is as she left it. So on my visit, I was fascinated to see a record player and a stack of records in one corner of the room. What kind of music did Flannery O'Connor like? I was not allowed behind the velvet rope into the room, but when I got home, I pulled out my copy of The Habit of Being, a collection of O'Connor's letters, to see what I could find out.

During the last year of her life, Fannery was given a record player by a group of Atlanta nuns. Shortly after this, Thomas Stritch, a fellow Catholic writer, sent O'Connor a stack of records. I was amused to read her thoughts on music:

I have the original Tin Ear, that is to say, the First and Prime Tin Ear. So I like music that is guaranteed good because I have no way of finding out for myself. Old stuff like Haydn that there is positively no doubt about. On my own I wouldn't know it from Music to Clean Up By.

And later:

...I don't have any preference yet though I think I like the kind that is straight up and down better than what slides around, if you know what I mean.


We are broke out with records now as Thomas sent me a box full out of his basement. All I can say about it is that all classical music sounds alike to me and all the rest of it sounds like the Beatles.

And if you've never read anything by Flannery O'Connor and don't know where to start, the best of her short stories are funny, shocking, and revelatory. Among the best are "A Good Man is Hard to Find," "The Life You Save May Be Your Own," and "Good Country People." Perhaps my very favorite is "Revelation," in which Mrs. Ruby Turpin, a shallow and self-satisfied Southern Christian, receives a message from God, delivered in an unusual way. At the end of the story she has a revelation about her place in the universe. It's deep and very funny.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Faith, Meaning, and Evidence

It's probably a mistake to post this one. Although it's a long post, it's too short for me to fully explain what I'm trying to say. It used to be even longer, but I cut a bunch of it out. What I've left will probably offend some people or have people telling me I'm going to hell. (Like I don't already know that!) But here it is, anyway:

Every summer I take a couple of days and head east of my home in Atlanta, out Interstate 20. I stop in Columbia, South Carolina, and spend a couple of hours in Papa Jazz, one of my favorite record stores - I always find some great stuff there. From there I head 70 miles northwest to Ora, the little town where my grandfather was born. Ora is hardly a town out all; there is a church, with its old cemetery, an abandoned school, and a few houses - that's about it. Visiting Ora gives me a strange sense of belonging, even though I have never lived there. My grandparents, their parents, and their parents are buried there, and my sister and I scattered some of my mom's ashes there when she died. Visiting this homeplace where I never lived is oddly comforting.

This year I took a detour on the way to Columbia, and visited two spots which seem related to each other somehow. I drove south of Madison, Georgia and visited Rock Eagle, a large, bird-shaped rock mound built somewhere between 1000 and 3000 years ago. There is now an observation tower at the foot of the mound; as you climb, you see the eagle slowly emerge from what just looks like a pile of rocks at ground level. Since history belongs to the winners, the purpose and meaning of the monument haven't survived. But it's likely that it had some religious meaning. It's moving to see this artifact built by unknown people so long ago.

From Rock Eagle I continued south on US 441 until I reached Andalusia, the farm home of Flannery O'Connor, the brilliant Georgia writer who died of lupus in 1964. I have read O'Connor's short stories and novels since I was about 15. Her work is strange and familiar at the same time; I "recognized" many of the characters right away, but her stories are filled with violence and bizarre twists. It took me several years to realize that her work was inspired by her Catholic faith.

Visiting Andalusia was, again, very moving. Since I have read and reread all of O'Connor's fiction, the place seemed somehow familiar and brought certain scenes from her work more into focus. Andalusia was a dairy farm, and peering in the locked, disused milk processing shed, I could almost see Asbury smoking over the objections of the hired hands: "She don't 'low no smoking in here." The tenant farmers' house, which had been the original plantation house in the 19th century, was obviously the home of the Shortleys and all the other hired hands in O'Connor's stories. It was an amazing visit.

Rock Eagle and Andalusia, only about 30 miles apart, seemed connected by mankind's longing to make sense of the universe - a quest that has so often come to rest in religion. Religion has resulted in so many wonderful creations, such as the Rock Eagle mound and the fiction of Flannery O'Connor, but it seems clear to me that religion is a result of man's attempts to impose order on the universe, not any god's revelation to man.

I'm a proponent of David Hume's dictum, "A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence." If you want me to believe that I have an eternal soul which will live forever, you'd better have some pretty strong evidence, since that's contrary to what is suggested by even a casual examination of the world. And you can tell me that God will either reward me or torture me forever after I die, but it's going to take more than the fact that you were taught that from childhood to convince me.

I don't think that it's an accident that every religion I've examined puts a lot of emphasis on faith. From what I gather, most people consider faith a good thing; I guess my attitude is not as positive - to me, a concise definition of faith is "believing in that for which there is no evidence." The problem with that is that if you choose to believe something with no evidence, you might as well believe anything. You could choose to believe that a god wants you to sell all of your possessions and give the money to the poor or that a god wants you to kill those who follow another religion.

So what do I believe? All the evidence seems to lead to the conclusion that we a short life on earth - and then it's over. I half-jokingly tell people that my basic philosophy comes from the prophet Louis Jordan: "Hey everybody, let's have some fun; 'cause you only live once, and when you're dead, you're done. So let the good times roll!" (Seriously, I don't live [or recommend] the kind of hedonist life that line seems to recommend if you take it at face value. Without moderation, life gets out of balance pretty quickly, and just gets even shorter. But it's a great line!)

I'm not a particularly profound thinker, but here's what I think about the meaning of life: life has no intrinsic meaning. We just are. That doesn't mean that my life or your life can't have meaning. It's just not automatically there, and it's not imposed from outside. The meaning of your life is whatever you decide it is. And for a lot of people, that's religion. And that's okay with me - just don't expect me to take your religion seriously as "truth" or as what my life should mean.

As to what my life means, well, that's where my own irrational faith comes in. I have far too much faith in the strange power of the organized vibration of air molecules. Like Charlie Parker, I'm a devout musician. Those vibrating air molecules have anchored my life for years. There are other anchors, but I won't get into that here.

Okay, that's enough of my half-baked philosophy. Back to regularly scheduled programming.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Original Memphis Five

Since I've gotten back into 78s, I have "adopted" the Original Memphis Five. Trumpeter Phil Napoleon's early-1920's jazz band was not particularly original, and none of them were Southerners, but there were five of them. One out of three ain't bad.

Okay, I couldn't resist parsing their name, but I don't mean to be derogatory - I like the OM5 a lot. No, they weren't ground-breaking or original, but they were consistently good - more consistent, in my opinion, than some more talented bands of the time, like the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. No, they never reached the heights of the NORK's best work, but they deserve to be remembered more than they have been.

From a 78 RPM record collector's standpoint, being an Original Memphis Five fan works out pretty well. They recorded a lot - way more the the Rhythm Kings or King Oliver's band. And their records are not in high demand by collectors, which means that I can get an excellent 78 by the OM5 for two or three bucks rather than the 50, 100, or more dollars a pristine original issue by Oliver's Creole Jazz Band or the NORK would set me back.

That wouldn't make any difference if the music wasn't worth tracking down, but the Original Memphis Five was a really good band. They started recording in 1922, a year before Oliver, and continued in more or less their original formation until 1925. Besides Napoleon, the band included Frank Signorelli on piano, drummer Jack Roth, Jimmy Lytell on clarinet, and alternating trombonists Miff Mole and Charlie Panelli. The band carefully worked out their tunes and came to the studio prepared, but they swung harder than their obvious model, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, and seem to have used more real improvisation than the ODJB. The OM5 concentrated on the pop tunes of the day, rather than jazz specialties, although they did record some originals. The emphasis on pop tunes was deliberate, according to Napoleon, and allowed them to reach a wide audience without sacrificing the quality of the music; they "jazzed" the pop tunes pretty hard. The Memphis Five's music was only weakened when vaudeville vocalists like Billy Jones were added to the band.

At least four members of the band were outstanding talents. Napoleon's trumpet lead was a little stiff on the 1922 recordings I've heard, but it had loosened up nicely by the middle of 1923. His first-choice trombonist, Miff Mole, was simply the first great trombone soloist of jazz. His real maturity came later in the decade, but he is excellent on the OM5 records, playing interesting, wide-ranging lines. Since he got busier and busier doing studio work as the decade wore on, he was often replaced by Panelli, who was not in the same league. Frank Signorelli's piano pretty much was the rhythm section, since most of whatever Jack Roth was doing didn't make onto the records. Signorelli's accompaniments are solid and full-sounding, and his solos are impressive. But the real surprise of the band, to me, anyway, was Jimmy Lytell. As I explored the band's work, I had the growing realization that Lytell is one of the unsung heroes of the early jazz clarinet. As early as 1922 or 1923 he had developed an original sound and style. I assume that he was somewhat influenced by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's Larry Shields, but he doesn't sound like anyone but himself. Well, he sounds a little like Larry's brother Harry Shields, who is one of my favorite New Orleans clarinetists. But the chances that Lytell was influenced by Harry Shields are pretty slim, since Harry hardly ever left New Orleans and didn't record until 1925. But sometimes, like during the 1924 "My Papa Doesn't Two Time No Time,"* Lytell starts a phrase with a hair-raising scoop up to a long high-register note in a way that Harry Shields favored. Anyway, Jimmy Lytell may not have been a near-genius clarinetist like Leon Rappolo, but he sure was good.

I've got over an hour's worth of OM5 78 RPM records on the Broadway, Banner, Pathe Actuelle, Vocalion, Perfect, Cameo, Regal, and Grey Gull labels. And luckily, they also recorded for Victor, who in my opinion, put out the best-sounding 78s. (I've got three of their Victors.) Since they tried to reach a "general" audience, as opposed to just jazz fans, some of their records are paired with more pedestrian dance bands on the flip side. (If any of you have been dying to hear "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" by the Majestic Dance Orchestra, come by my house - I have it on the back of a Memphis Five record.) But they were hip enough to back up the African-American blues/vaudeville singer Lena Wilson - the label reads "Lena Wilson and Her Nubian Five"(!)

If you are intelligent and mentally stable enough not to collect 78s, there are a few CD reissues of the OM5 out there. The most readily available seem to be a collection on the Timeless label (which I haven't heard) and a set of all their Columbia recordings on Retrieval (which I have heard). There are too many vocals for comfort on the Columbia sides, but otherwise, the Retrieval CD is an excellent reissue.

These days many jazz fans are exploring the work of excellent, long-forgotten, second-tier talents of the fifties and sixties. I hope those with a taste for early jazz will similarly give an ear to the Original Memphis Five - one of those solid, professional, journeyman bands that jazz would be poorer without.

*This was recorded for the Emerson label, but also issued on a bewildering variety of labels. I have it on Grey Gull.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Fifes and Drums From the Hill Country

I like all kinds of music, although anyone who has read many entries of this blog knows that I'm most partial to jazz of various stripes. But there is one family of music that has always touched me deeply in a strong, primal way. I'm talking about early black American music - music that echoes, at least to some extent, the music of nineteenth-century African-Americans. Amazingly, some of this pre-blues, pre-jazz, pre-ragtime music survived well into the twentieth century, at least in scattered corners of the South. This web of music includes field hollers, work songs, ring shouts, and banjo music. Maybe I'll write about some of these branches of the early African-American music tree later, but right now I want to talk about fifes and drums.

The Africans who were enslaved in The Land of the Free were not allowed, for the most part, to practice the musical, religious, and cultural traditions of their homelands, but they were allowed, even encouraged, to adopt the musical culture of their "owners." This they did, but with their own twists. A simple way to look at early black American music is to say that African music didn't survive in the new world, but African ways of making music did. The reluctant new Americans played music from the European-American tradition, but played it their own way.

Fife and drum bands have a history in America which predates the formation of the United States, so it's no surprise that black Americans took up this instrumentation. We can only guess what early black fife and drum bands sounded like and how the African-American fife and drum tradition developed over the years before they were first recorded. And it seems that this kind of band mostly died out sometime in the nineteenth century - but it didn't die completely.

Folklorists have pointed out that the oldest traditions survive the longest in the most isolated areas. There are a few spots in the American south that, well into the twentieth century, were populated by a fairly isolated black population. These include the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where a rich heritage of spirituals and ring shouts survived, and the Mississippi hill country east of the Delta. The farmland in the hill country is not as rich as that of the Delta, so the white cotton planters of the Delta had no interest in snatching up the hill country land; this area was settled by small farmers, black and white. The hill country gave rise to such amazing African-American musicians as Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside and Junior Kimbrough. And it is the last place in America where black fife and drum music survives - not as a museum piece, but as a living, breathing music.*

Music from this tradition was first recorded in 1942 by Alan Lomax, who preserved quite a few selections by the great hill country musician Sid Hemphill. Hemphill** had a fife and drum band as well as string band, and was apparently the most popular musician (with both black and white audiences) around Tate and Panola Counties. The Lomax/Hemphill recordings sound like a strange hybrid music drawn partly from a world I recognize and partly from some alien world. The two snare drums, bass drum, and cane fife play nineteenth-century folk ballads and pop songs like "Jesse James" and "The Sidewalks of New York" as well as an unearthly "Death March," which reminds us that this type of ensemble sometimes provided funeral music in the rural South. Hemphill (or his bandmate Alec Askew) was also recorded playing a haunting, very African-sounding "Emmaline, Take Your Time" on the the four-note "quills," or pan-pipe; the notes of the melody (which doesn't match up with any tempered scale) are interspersed with falsetto whoops - an apparently African musical practice which also shows up in the music of blues harpist Sonny Terry.***

Lomax returned to the hill country in 1959 and recorded more tracks by the now-elderly Hemphill, but more importantly, recorded the next generation of fife and drum music. Ed and Lonnie Young's music was harder, funkier, bluesier than Hemphill's. Several of their recordings showed up in Lomax's Sounds of the South series, issued on Atlantic. Tunes like "Jim and John," "Chevrolet," and "Oree," with the fife and drums accompanied by several local women clapping complex cross-rhythms, are extremely powerful, and still seem somewhat other-worldly, even to a Southerner like me.

The distillation and toughening up of the black fife and drum tradition continued in Mississippi through the work of Napoleon Strickland, who retired from playing in the 1980's. But the figure most associated with Mississippi fife and drum music is the legendary Othar Turner, who died in 2003 at the age of 94. Turner farmed the challenging soil of the hill country from his teenage years, and his farm was the site of many legendary fife and drum picnics. On holidays such as Independence Day and Labor Day, Turner would get up early, kill and barbecue a goat, and host an outdoor party featuring non-stop dancing to the fife and drums.

I never attended one of his picnics, but it wasn't for lack of trying. R.L. Boyce, one of the drummers in Turner's Rising Star Fife and Drum Band, gave me detailed, semi-intelligible directions to Turner's farm, and I tried to find the place one July 4th about 15 years ago, but I got hopelessly lost driving around the hill country outside of Senatobia. I did hear the Rising Star band a couple of times at the Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, and both times the impact of the music was strong, visceral, and almost overwhelming. After one of the performances, I bought a tape from Othar's daughter Bernice, who played drums in the band. (Strangely, Bernice died from cancer on the same day her father died; she was only 48.) I found Mr. Turner and asked him to autograph the tape, and he got a strange look on his face. But he took my pen and laboriously wrote a "T" on the card. I thanked him and hoped I had not embarrassed him.

Othar Turner was a somewhat more limited fife player than any of the others I've mentioned. He only had a handful of tunes, and about half of what he played turned into the repeated two-bar riff known as "Shimmy She Wobble." But his limitations were also his strengths; his music was like sunlight through a lens - focused onto such a small area, it emerged as a extremely powerful and haunting expression of a man and a tradition.

When Othar died, it was feared that the Mississippi fife and drum tradition would die with him - there were lots of drummers, but few fife players. But he had been teaching his granddaughter, Sharde Thomas. She was only 13 years old at the time of her grandfather's death, and has only recorded a few scattered tracks that have been issued so far. But she loves the music, and is now carrying a tradition on her back by herself. A heavy burden for someone not yet 20.****

*African-American fife and drum music could still be heard into the mid-twentieth century in western Tennessee and 90 miles southwest of my house, in the countryside outside of Columbus, Georgia. It has since died out in both places.

**Sid Hemphill's granddaughter was the She-Wolf, the great Jessie Mae Hemphill. Jessie Mae was a powerful blues and gospel musician who, luckily, was recorded quite a few times.

***These recordings can be found on Traveling Through the Jungle: Fife and Drum Band Music From the Deep South (Testament), an album which also includes recordings by Napoleon Strickland, Othar Turner, and a Georgia fife and drum band.

****Othar Turner can be heard on two CDs on the Birdman label: Everybody Hollerin' Goat and Othar Turner and Afrossippi All Stars, on which the Rising Star band collaborates with West African musicians. His music in perhaps its purest form can be heard on the Rising Star's cassette For the Times Beyond and a 7" EP on the Sugar Ditch label. Sarde Thomas's most prominent recorded appearance so far comes on two tracks of Corey Harris's truly remarkable 2003 album Mississippi to Mali. The album also contains Harris's moving dedication to Othar, "Mr. Turner."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Recent Listening

A couple of more well-developed posts are waiting in the wings, but in the meantime, here are some ramblings about some of the music that has particularly gotten under my skin in the past few days. Some of this stuff is new to me; some I’m known for awhile.

Tony Parenti – Tony Parenti’s New Orleans Shufflers (Jazzology). Parenti was one of the good, not great, New Orleans clarinetists, but this 1954 album is more than the sum of its parts. I love the band he put together; it’s half young musicians, half older veterans; half black, half white; half New Orleanians, half Northerners. Well, it’s a seven-piece band, so each split is not exactly half and half, but it’s a four/three (or vice versa) on each. The music is relaxed, sounding more like New Orleans than New York dixieland. My man Danny Barker is on hand – he sure had a springy beat on rhythm banjo. The young cornetist Jack Fine made his recording debut here; 54 years later I was in Donna’s on Rampart Street in New Orleans when he came in, set his horn on the bar, and ordered a drink. For the rest of the evening, whenever he felt like playing along with the band (Tom McDermott and Loose Marbles), he’d pick up his horn and start blowing from his barstool, much to the delight of the musicians on the bandstand.

Cecil Taylor – Algonquin (Bridge). This music, a duet between Taylor and violinist Mat Maneri, was recorded in concert at the Library of Congress about 10 years ago and issued on a classical label a few years later. It’s a lovely concert; the music belies the perception of Taylor’s music as unremittingly thunderous and intense. (Of course, that perception doesn’t hold up to much actual contact with Taylor’s music.) Maneri seems to totally inhabit Taylor’s world, while, at the same time, Taylor bends his music to Maneri’s sound and style. This beautiful performance further deepens the mystery of how Taylor’s music is put together: what’s composed, what’s improvised, and what’s the difference in Taylor’s world, anyway?

John Patton – That Certain Feeling (Blue Note). I’m using this wonderful record to represent Patton’s Blue Note recordings in general. I’ve had a couple of them for years, but my recent exploration of the Blue Note organ scene of the 1960’s has led me to realize what an interesting musician Patton is. I’ve been tracking down more of his Blue Notes, and find myself going back to them often. Big John could play standard organ funk with the best of them, but was not content to stay in that bag for very long. While perhaps not a great improviser, Patton composed or chose settings that would allow him and the other soloists to stretch quite a bit further than was typical on an "organ grinder" date. “I Want to Go Home," from That Certain Feeling, is an interesting tune in 5/4. It doesn’t have an obvious groove like “Take Five” – it took a little while to reveal itself to me.

Roscoe Mitchell – Nonaah (Nessa). Specifically, the 1977 solo alto saxophone set from Willisau, which is the only part of the double CD I’ve had the stones to listen to so far. This music knocked me on my ass. The first several minutes consist of the same short, jagged phrase played over and over, while the audience gets increasingly (and vocally) more restless. To quote Mitchell from the liner notes: “It was a battle. I had to make the noise and whatever was going on with the audience part of the piece. The music couldn’t move till they respected me, until they realized that I wasn’t going anywhere, and if someone was going it would have to be them.” When the tension is almost unbearable, Mitchell finally begins to develop the piece, and does so in amazing ways. Several more minutes in, and he has the audience with him; the catcalls have subsided, and there is total, mesmerized silence behind Mitchell’s softest passages. At the end of the 30-plus minute set, the crowd erupts. This is some of the most intense, stunning music I’ve heard for quite a while, and I regret waiting 32 years after it was first issued to experience it.

I should be ready to tackle the rest of Nonaah tomorrow….

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Magic Slim

I don't often read music magazines anymore. At one time I had subscriptions to several, including Downbeat, Cadence, and Living Blues. I'm not sure why they don't interest me anymore; I know that I no longer try to keep up with up with the latest news and latest new names in the kinds of music I like. (Sometimes this is to my detriment - I'm a year or two behind the curve concerning saxophonist Steve Lehman, whom I heard about just a few days ago. I've got some catching up to do there.) But I was in a bookstore yesterday and took a look at the music magazines; there, smiling up at me from the new Living Blues, was my favorite living bluesman, Magic Slim.

Well, you know how it is. In a couple of days, I might name someone else as my favorite living blues musician - Honeyboy Edwards, B.B. King, or even Corey Harris. But Morris Holt, aka Magic Slim, is certainly up at the top of the list. Magic Slim and the Teardrops play straight, unadorned Chicago blues - the kind of Mississippi blues overlaid with big city energy that you might have heard in the Windy City back in the fifties or sixties. But I hope that doesn't give the wrong impression - there is nothing "retro" or nostalgic about the Slim and the Teardrops. Even if they are playing a 50-year-old variant of a 110-year-old style, they play it with a strictly contemporary energy. This is music for tonight!

Slim is 72 now, but is still hitting it as hard as ever. He was born in Grenada, Mississippi, at the edge of the Delta, and took up guitar when he lost a finger on his right hand in a cotton gin accident, putting an end to his budding piano career. After playing local juke joints and house parties, he moved to Chicago when he was in his early twenties and apprenticed with Magic Sam Maghett, who gave him his nickname. About 15 years ago, tired of the crime in his Chicago neighborhood, Slim settled his family into the least bluesy spot on earth - Lincoln, Nebraska. Except that in Lincoln you can find more than just rabid Nebraska Cornhusker fans and the Penis on the Prairie (as the irreverent call the Nebraska Capitol building); you can find the Zoo Bar, one of the country's great blues bars.

I've been lucky enough to hear Magic Slim and the Teardrops at the Zoo Bar and another one of America's great blues bars, Blind Willie's in Atlanta. Slim (who hasn't lived up to the second half of his nickname in years) is pretty unprepossessing until he climbs onto the bandstand and plugs his Fender Jazzmaster directly into the amp - no pedals or effects for him, thank you. His guitar sound is as raw as you might expect, his vocals are strong and basic, and the Teardrops rock the Chicago shuffle like no other band around. The resulting sound isn't fancy, but it sure is strong. Slim's music has a directness and purity that make "revivalist" blues bands sound phony.

There are quite a few recordings by Slim and the Teardrops out there. I can't claim to have heard them all, but my favorite out of the ones I am familiar with is Black Tornado, on Blind Pig. Two tracks, "Wake Me Up Early" and "She's Got Bad Intentions," could serve as a two-part primer in Chicago blues grooves. "Early" is a perfect Chicago shuffle - intense, yet relaxed, while "Intentions" has a groove that the blues guys call a "flat tire shuffle" - the last triplet of every beat is accented. The result is a loping groove that is incredibly laid-back, yet at the same times moves forward like a freight train.

Magic Slim is a treasure. I hope he stays around for a long time.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Holy Ghost

"Trane was the Father, Pharoah was the Son, I was the Holy Ghost."
-saxophonist Albert Ayler

The first time I heard Albert Ayler I was horrified. I was 17; my mom used to frequent junk stores, looking for bargains, and she would bring home any records that looked like they might be jazz. I've mentioned the Arista/Freedom Sampler album that she picked up for me in a previous post. As I said before, the Anthony Braxton and Oliver Lake tracks got to me right away, but the Ayler track, "Saints," was just repellent. I couldn't believe anyone would want to play like that. But, being a curious guy, I also wondered why anyone would play like that - what was Ayler getting at? So I listened again, and then again. On the third listen, a light bulb went off - the piece was a rondo. Ayler kept coming back to the same melodic material. And there was a melody - I could hear it. I was fascinated. Once I knew that the piece made "sense" - it had form and logic - I wanted to hear more Albert Ayler and understand his message.

Thirty-something years later, I sometimes feel that I'm not much closer to "understanding" Ayler, but I love his music - the best of it, anyway. Albert Ayler represents the furthest extreme of jazz; the most "advanced" music (in terms of language) created in the name of jazz. It's difficult to imagine how anyone could take the musical language of jazz further than Ayler did, and almost 40 years after his death, no one has. At its most extreme, Ayler's music was harsh, atonal, and devoid of regular pulse. It makes for very intense and demanding listening.

If you have access to the Revenant Holy Ghost box set of Ayler's work, listen to his first small-group recordings, with Herbert Katz's Finnish group. He plays the written melodies of these conventional tunes with assurance, but once his solos start, he is in another place than the rest of the group. It's easy to understand why some of the group thought he didn't know what he was doing, since his improvisations have little relationship to the harmonies of the pieces. But it's also apparent, at least in hindsight, that they were wrong. As odd and unexpected as some of Ayler's note choices were, it's obvious that he knew exactly where he was in the structure of the tunes all the time. And it's equally obvious that Ayler needed a less conventional setting in order to get his message across.

In practice, Ayler's mature music was not unrelentingly harsh or demanding. Many of his improvisations, no matter how intense and abstract they were, were launched by simple, singable "heads," often marchlike. And as his career went on, the tonal, folkish melodies became longer, while the atonal solos got shorter. And pieces like the beautiful "For John Coltrane" had an identifiable key center throughout.

But in my opinion, the music he recorded in 1964 represents Ayler at his purest. The heads are short and the improvisations are frightening, accomplished, and utterly unlike anything heard up that time in jazz or any other music. His colleagues (usually Gary Peacock on bass, Sunny Murray on drums, and sometimes Don Cherry on trumpet) are totally in tune with Ayler's aims. He created some wonderful music after that, but for a taste of the "real" Ayler, hear Spiritual Unity, Prophecy, Vibrations (also known as Ghosts), or The Hilversum Session.

Although Cherry came from a somewhat different place than Ayler, musically speaking, his work with Ayler showed how adaptable he was - he adjusted his playing so that it fit perfectly with Ayler's. Later, Albert tried to create a trumpet player in his own image by bringing his brother Donald into his band. This was valuable as a negative example; Donald's one-dimensional playing showed that Albert, in contrast, was really onto something. On any record on which they play together, compare Donald's blaring, monochromatic playing to the range, variety of phrase shapes, and dynamics of Albert's improvisations.

Ayler's intense music came from a pretty intense individual. As might be deduced from the titles of his pieces ("Holy Holy," "Spirits Rejoice," "Zion Hill"), Ayler's music was largely inspired by his strong religious feelings. The Holy Ghost box set contains a 1966 interview in which Ayler frankly sounds a little crazy; he is so full of pseudo-biblical sayings that's it's a little scary. He sounds somewhat more in control in the 1970 interviews; he is still pretty intense, but also amiable. But in November of that year, his body was found in the East River; the circumstances of his death have never been completely explained.

This post has been difficult to write, and I'm still not satisfied with it. Ayler's music is so complex and demanding that's it's difficult to talk about. So I'm going to end with a copout. Here is perhaps the best paragraph ever written about Albert Ayler, by Max Harrison. Reading the first sentence here always gives me a chill.

Even decades later, on listening to Ayler's courageous, bewitched, desperate music, we are haunted by the strange and disquieting impression that we are out on the very limits of the expressible, out on the last dangerous fringes where the ice of what we normally call art is so thin that we can almost see through into the depths below, into the mysterious thing-in-itself from which we abstract the all-too-human conventions of music. What he did in his best moments seemed like a further attempt at exploding the language of music so that it might eventually approximate to the mind's complexity. To those who say that language, even musical language, is a social contract which cannot be broken without loss of communication, Ayler would maybe have replied that his aim was less communication that communion in the appreciation of mystery.

from The Essential Jazz Records, Volume 2; p. 502.

Monday, June 1, 2009

More This and That

Another post about this and that....

My last post, about a single recording by a strong-voiced African-American woman, put me in mind of a (somewhat) more recent recording by another such woman, along with her sisters and father. I don't care about most music that makes the top 10, but in the summer of 1972, "I'll Take You There" by the Staple Singers made it to the number one spot on both the Billboard R & B and pop charts. And it's still an amazing song, although it's pretty simple: two chords, a cool bass line, the great Muscle Shoals rhythm section, some touching lyrics, the amazing Mavis Staples on lead vocals, and a hypnotic drive. A few years ago, I was driving around Atlanta with John Lewis - no, not that one; this JL is one of Atlanta's best drummers. I had The Best of The Staple Singers in the CD player, and when this song came on, I started talking about how hip the bass line was. John listened for a minute, and pointed out something I hadn't noticed - there is only one syncopated note in the bass line: the second one. It's so full of life that I would have thought it was heavily syncopated, but it's pretty simple. Again, what a great song.

I was feeling a little under the weather today, but I had to get out and run some errands anyway. In between stops, I decided to stop by a nature preserve here in Atlanta and hunt a geocache that was recently hidden by my friend Lee. It was amazing how better I felt as soon as I was in the woods and on the trail. I don't understand how searching for a box hidden in the woods and signing the logbook inside can be so therapeutic, but it is.

About half of our daylilies are in bloom right now. The daylilies in our yard are all from my mom's garden - she raised them and hybridized several new varieties, as did her father. My grandfather, Charles Blakely, was well-known in daylily circles back in the sixties and seventies; several of his hybrids won awards. We have his Green Wonder in our yard - it was all the rage about 30 years ago. My mom's garden was really amazing for about two months every year; it's gone now, as is the house I grew up in. We don't have nearly as many daylilies in our little yard as she did, but I'm glad we have the ones we do - it's a connection to her that I'm grateful for. I think about my mom every day; she is even more on my mind when the daylilies are in bloom.

Daylilies don't last long. Each flower lasts only a day. All the blossoms on a plant obviously don't come out at the same time, but each plant is in bloom only for a short period. Different varieties bloom at different times; the earliest blooms come out in May, the late bloomers don't show up until July. By late July, all the flowers are gone. They're only here for a short time, and they remind me that we only have a little time here as well. Thanks for the daylilies, Mom.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Art In Spite of Itself

"Morning Dove Blues" by Sippie Wallace is a perfect work of art. Every detail is just right, and each works to heighten the emotional affect of the song: Wallace's strong voice, with its pleasing Texas accent, the rich piano accompaniment by her nephew, Hersal Thomas, and the simple, well-chosen fills provided by King Oliver on cornet. It's all just perfect.

And the amazing thing is that nobody involved, from the musicians to the Okeh record company officials who set up the date in 1925, had any thoughts of creating a work of art. Yes, they wanted to make a quality product, but product it was - designed to fill the demand for "race" records. It took record companies until 1920 to realize that African-Americans would buy records, wanted to buy records, if the recording industry would give them something they liked. For the next nine years, until the depression all but wiped out the record business, the companies threw an astonishing variety of black music into the marketplace, with no idea what would sell. Much forgettable music resulted, but they also recorded, almost in spite of themselves, some masterpieces like this one.

Some of Sippie's records sold pretty well, but "Morning Dove Blues" apparently didn't - not many copies have survived, and all the LP and CD issues I've heard have lots of surface noise competing with the music. For those with ears to hear, though, it doesn't matter. 84 years after this performance was recorded, I'm able to hear Sippie sing "Early in the morning, I rise like a mourning dove...." King Oliver answers her with his muted cornet, and my heart constricts. Art in spite of itself.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Gil Evans and the Magic Moment

I discovered two of my heroes, Steve Lacy and Gil Evans, at one fell swoop at age 18 when I bought a reissue of Gil's first album as leader, Gil Evans & Ten. I've loved Gil's music ever since, from the highly detailed charts he created for Miles Davis in the late fifties and early sixties, to the loose, improvising big band he had late in his career. Evans had many strengths, but one of them was the knack for creating the magic moment that would lift the music to another plane.

Gil spoke on several occasions about his debt to Louis Armstrong. In a 1986 interview with Ben Sidran, he said, "I bought every one of his records from 1927 till around 1936.... In every one of those three-minute records, there's a magic moment somewhere. Every one of them." And he's right. No matter how lame the song, how clunky the rhythm section, how corny the arrangement, Louis was always able to lift it to another level, even if only for a moment.

Gil apparently learned this lesson well. Of course, many of his great recordings don't need the magic moment, because they are incredible from beginning to end. But when they weren't, Gil could make something magical happen. An unlikely example is the main title theme from the movie The Color of Money. I don't know how much Evans contributed to this film's music (his name is barely to be found on the soundtrack album), but the exact moment he took over the arranging of the main title is apparent. 45 seconds in, the trendy (mid-1980's style), ordinary music we have heard so far takes a darker turn. The real magic moment comes about 10 seconds later, when an ominous bass clarinet riff, a trombone lip trill, and a tightly muted trumpet solo occur simultaneously. It's an unexpected combination of sounds that only someone of Evans' genius could have conceived.

Often, especially in later years, the magic moment manifested itself by Evans simply knowing which soloist to point to. Listen to "Half Man, Half Cookie," from Bud & Bird from 1986. This comes from the period in which Evans' band played at Sweet Basil every Monday night. He encouraged his band members to contribute to the book, so that they would have plenty of different material to play. Saxophonist Bill Evans wrote "Half Man, Half Cookie," a big-band funk piece that is competent rather than outstanding. That is, until guest star Johnny Coles, an Evans associate for years, steps up to solo about two-thirds of the way through the piece. The atmosphere instantly changes, becomes more mysterious and unpredictable. Coles, of course, deserves much of the credit for raising the musical level, but Evans chose to have him on hand and knew just when to add him to the mix.

Like I said, most of Gil Evans' music was all magic. But when it wasn't, he could make that magic moment happen.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Organ Grinders

It's been a tough few weeks at work. Music is, as always, my refuge. But somewhat to my surprise, I have found that organ grinders have provided me with more serenity and enjoyment that any other musicians lately. I'm talking, of course, about practitioners of soulful, intellectually undemanding jazz featuring the Hammond B3 organ. I've been listening to Big John Patton, Lonnie Smith, Freddie Roach, Baby Face Willette, Jack McDuff, and the daddy of them all, Jimmy Smith.

Like I said, I'm kind of surprised at myself. In the past I have only liked to occasionally sample this kind of organ jazz, as a respite from more challenging music. I've always loved organist Larry Young, but he was a different animal from the guys listed above; he was more influenced by Coltrane, Miles, and McCoy Tyner than Jimmy Smith. But something about the organ grinders is speaking to me right now.

The basic unit these guys favor is the organ trio: Hammond, guitar, and drums. A bassist is not needed; the organist plays bass lines with his left hand, or on the foot pedals on ballads. The guitar fills out the chords during the organ solos, and provides a contrasting solo voice. Often a tenor sax is added to the basic trio; occasionally, even more horns are added.

These guys all tend to play simple, blues-based material, but I'm enjoying the subtle differences between them. Baby Face Willette (much beloved by organ fans, and pretty much unknown to everyone else) is the bluesiest, with a wonderfully grungy sound. Freddie Roach is more concerned with color and texture - his use of the drawbars on ballads is masterful. Lonnie Smith is not content to stick to the organ grinder formula - he wants the audience to meet him at least halfway. I particularly like his Turning Point album, where the horn soloists are Lee Morgan, Julian Priester, and Bennie Maupin - all players who could play the blues, but who had at least one foot in the avant-garde of the time. And I'm developing a new appreciation for Jimmy Smith - I had always thought of him as just scattering bluesy licks across any chord progression, but I have to admire him for his sound and drive.

An added bonus with this stuff is the guitar - it's often played on these albums by Grant Green or Kenny Burrell. Both of these guys are just as bluesy as their organ-grinding employers, but often more sophisticated. Their solos provide nice contrast.

Organ grinding may go back to being an occasional thing for me. But right now, I'm really enjoying it.