Tuesday, December 23, 2008

In Praise of Traditional Jazz

I listen to all kinds of music (mostly jazz of various types, to be sure), but I tend to concentrate on one type at a time, with other styles mixed in for variety. Lately I've been focused largely on traditional jazz, which encompasses such real or imagined variations as New Orleans style, Chicago, style, Dixieland, small-band swing, etc. Leaving aside any attempt to define any of these or distinguish among them, the kind of music I'm talking about generally consists of three or four wind instruments (one or two trumpets, trombone, clarinet, and possibly saxophone) improvising loosely over a solid three- or four-piece rhythm section. In this style each player knows his place in the ensemble and shares a common language of tunes and chord changes. It's a style of jazz that has survived since the beginning of the music, no matter what changes have occurred in jazz.

Some of the most beautiful traditional jazz has, not surprisingly, been created by New Orleans musicians. New Orleans style jazz is often considered by the uninitiated to be merely "good-time music;" lightweight, happy stuff of no particular depth. But for those with ears to hear, there is a depth and complexity to the music that is not apparent if you're only listening with half an ear. I have seldom listened to that greatest of all New Orleans bands, King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, without sensing that this is music made created by artists keenly aware of the joy of life and the surety of death. In the "happiest" passages, the horns add heart-wrenching blue notes which give lie to the prevailing sentiment. And in the saddest blues, there is is a sense that life is to be lived and enjoyed.

The emotional "content" of any music is, finally, subjective. But in a strictly musical sense, the best New Orleans jazz has a depth and beauty that isn't found in any other kind of music, because it is based on a level of improvised polyphony that can only be achieved by musicians who understand the style at a very high level. In the aforementioned King Oliver band, each instrument had a strictly defined role: Oliver's cornet took the melodic lead, Louis Armstrong played a more or less parallel part in harmony, the clarinetist played a secondary part which often bridged the gaps between the cornet phrases, and the trombone played a spare, quasi-bass line. But sometime after Oliver left New Orleans, the musicians of that city developed a manner of playing in which the lead was spontaneously passed among the front-line instruments. This style reached perhaps its highest peak in the recordings Bunk Johnson made for the American Music label in the mid-1940s, and in the 1945 Blue Note session by Johnson and Sidney Bechet*.

This ensemble style is gloriously present on a CD I recently acquired: Kid Howard at San Jacinto Hall. I only picked up this 1963 CD because I have been reading Brian Harvey's book about New Orleans trumpeter Kid Howard. I was a little unsure - not only is the book not that great (it's poorly written and edited), but Howard was notoriously inconsistent. The playing on the San Jacinto album is amazing, though; there is hardly a moment which doesn't feature at least two of the horns inprovising together. During each tune, just at the point when the listener might start to get bored, there is a change of texture or dynamics. I charted out what was going on in "Blues for Old San Jacinto;" the seven choruses proceed like this: the first two choruses have trumpet, trombone, and clarinet improvising equal parts. All three instruments play the next two choruses, but the clarinet takes the lead, the trombone plays a secondary part, and the trumpet takes a very spare third line. In the fifth chorus, the trumpet lays out completely; the trombone takes the lead, and the clarinet plays a countermelody. The sixth chorus features all three instruments playing equally again, at a mezzo piano dynamic level, and in the last chorus the equal polyphony continues, but at a forte level. It's not complex, but it works perfectly. And you know that it just happened as the tape was rolling; nobody discussed it beforehand.

Unfortunately, this manner of playing has largely faded out in New Orleans. The largely tourist audiences want to hear solos, so most traditional jazz performances in New Orleans these days have ensemble playing only during the first and last choruses; in between there is a string of solos. But the older ensemble style can still be found at times; some of the best music I have heard at Preservation Hall in recent years has been at the end of sets, when there was not time for solos - they musicians had no choice but to play polyphony. And, of course, there are always records.

*This amazing session has been neglected by both jazz fans and commentators, possibly because it doesn't fit into anyone's ideas of what Johnson and Bechet are all about. But the 20 or so minutes music they made in the studio have some of the greatest ensemble polyphony that any musicians have improvised.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Jeffery's Danny Barker Story

Danny Barker (1909-1994) was a guitarist, banjoist, singer, writer, composer, raconteur, and jazz archivist from New Orleans. He was probably best known among casual jazz fans for his seven-year stint anchoring the rhythm section of Cab Calloway’s big band in the late thirties and forties. But when he moved from New York back to New Orleans in 1965, he was all over the city’s jazz scene, as a performer, teacher, and as the first curator of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

Among his other talents, Barker was one of the great rhythm guitarists in jazz. His style was somewhat different from that of Freddie Green, who is often held up as the best rhythm guitarist of all time. Danny tended to use richer chords than Green (who had kind of a minimalist approach) and his beat was strong and springy, often interspersed with triplets and syncopations. His Save the Bones album, recorded late in his life, is a great illustration of his rhythm style, as well as being a very entertaining record. Barker made hundreds of other recordings; particularly interesting is the series he did in the thirties and forties backing up his wife, singer Blue Lu Barker, in a series of sometimes risqué, bluesy songs, usually of his own composition. The most famous of these is “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” which was a hit for Maria Mauldaur back in the seventies. He also wrote “Save the Bones for Henry Jones,” which sold lots of records for Nat King Cole and the Pointer Sisters. He recorded with both Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker – one of the few musicians to do so. And, although he is not generally credited as such, I consider him to be the father of New Orleans R & B – hear his 1945 recordings of “Indian Red” and “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.”

Every time I visit New Orleans, I make it a point to stroll to the end of Chartres Street in the French Quarter and look for the plaque marking Danny’s birthplace. It’s on a typical French Quarter townhouse built in the early nineteenth century. His mother was a Barbarin – any fan of New Orleans jazz will recognize that name.

This is all background to my Danny Barker story. I’ve told this story a few times, but here it is with all the details:

It starts around 1990; I had just visited New Orleans for the first time, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had just issued their New Orleans Album, with several Crescent City guest stars. One of the tunes on the album was “Don’t You Feel My Leg,” with Danny Barker playing guitar and singing. It’s a great version of the song, with a hilarious spoken intro by Danny. Well, my ex-wife and I were driving around with The New Orleans Album in the tape player, and she was very taken with that song. So I had a plan: take her back to New Orleans and surprise her with a visit to the Palm Court to hear Danny Barker.

During that period Danny played every Sunday night at the Palm Court with his Jazz Hounds. I booked us a room in the Quarter over Memorial Day weekend of 1992, when neither of us had to work on Monday. A week before the trip, I called the Palm Court, “Danny Barker is playing there on Sunday, right?” “Yes, Danny plays here every Sunday.” Well, we had a nice trip, ate some great food, and had a good time. Then we headed to the Palm Court on Sunday night. As we got close, we could hear music, but it didn’t sound like what I was expecting. When we got to the door, I could see a young band on the stage playing bebop. I asked about Danny and was told that he was visiting relatives in Chicago.

As you can imagine, we were pretty disappointed. We didn’t stay to hear the band, and we left town the next day. But before we left, I took a look in the phone book, and sure enough, there was a listing for Danny Barker on Sere Street. I copied down the number and put it in my wallet.

That summer, I screwed up my courage, dialed the number, and explained the situation to Danny, offering to pay him for a gig if he would play a little private concert for us when we returned to New Orleans. He was very gracious, and said sure, just give him a call. So we went back over Thanksgiving of 1992 and rented a house on Dumaine Street for a couple of days. It was the coldest I’ve ever been in New Orleans; I don’t think I was really warm for three days. When I called Danny, he asked directions and said he’d come to our place. I didn’t want to put him to any trouble, so I said we could come to his house. He agreed and gave me directions to a small bungalow up past the Fairgrounds.

We rang the bell about 10:00 in the morning and were given a warm greeting by Danny and Blue Lu. After some small talk, he pulled out his guitar and played and sang “The Second Line” by his uncle, Paul Barbarin. For the next hour and a half, we were given an incredible private concert – it was just amazing.

Without meaning to, we put Blue Lu into a bit of a bad mood – we had been talking about how much we enjoyed Danny’s music while forgetting that Blue Lu was a performer herself, although she had not sung professionally for several years. I quickly picked up some hints from Danny, and asked Lu to sing. She refused at first, but soon forgot the slight and was singing along with Danny. I remember “Basin Street Blues,” “Save the Bones,” and, of course, “Don’t You Feel Me Leg.”

After they had played and sung for awhile, Danny reached behind an end table and pulled out a Mosaic Records box set – the Blue Note recordings of Herbie Nichols – and started talking about what a genius Nichols was. I took the opportunity to clear up a discographical mystery – the guitar player on Nichols’ first session as leader (for Savoy) is always given as “probably Danny Barker.” I asked, “Didn’t you record with him?” Danny looked puzzled and said no. When I got home I listened to the session more carefully, and it is obviously not Danny on guitar.

Before we left Danny and Blue Lu each autographed a publicity picture for us – Lu’s was from her Capitol Records days (c. 1950), while Danny’s was more recent. They invited us to stay for lunch, but we didn’t want to wear out our welcome. It was one of the great days of my life. I have always regretted not being able to attend Danny’s funeral a couple of years later.

Footnote: My friend Scott Hooker, the great traditional jazz pianist, is a frighteningly good voice mimic. He heard enough of Danny Barker’s voice from recordings to have it down. About two or three years after Danny’s death, I was living alone in an apartment in the Buckhead area of Atlanta. One evening my phone rang; when I picked it up and said hello, a voice said, “Hi, Jeff; this is Danny Barker.” Every hair on my body stood up – it was uncanny. Since I was unable to speak, Scott let me know it was him. His imitation was so perfect that it was Danny Barker on the phone – there was no doubt in my mind.

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Delta and Frank Frost

Speaking of Frank Frost (see last post)....

During the 1990's (and a couple of times since), I would periodically visit the Mississippi Delta to chase down the blues and visit some of the holy sites of the music. I’m not talking about the mouth of the Mississippi in Louisiana, but the narrow triangle of land between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers that Mississippians call the Delta. This region is indeed an inland delta, and flooded every year until the system of flood control levees was built. The Delta was pretty much wilderness until after the Civil War, when a few intrepid settlers discovered that it had the best topsoil for growing cotton in the country. The planters cleared tracts for huge plantations, and since cotton was, before mechanization, a highly labor-intensive crop, the black Americans who were now nominally citizens flocked to the area to find work and a living. Many of them, or their descendants, would come to regret this move. For about a hundred years, the Delta had a black majority, but the white minority ruled with a pretty brutal iron fist. The sharecropping system kept the laborers subjugated, in debt and unable to leave the plantations. It’s no wonder that, around the turn of the twentieth century, the blues first developed there.*

Even to a native Southerner, the Delta seems strange and a little foreign. In the winter, when I first visited, the sky is low and oppressive; in the summer, it seems infinite – since the land is almost completely flat and there aren’t many trees, it seems as if you can see forever. Even though the vegetation is lush in the summer, the Delta has a strangely desolate feel, not helped by the fact that most of the small towns in the region have been largely deserted by businesses. By the time I first visited, the Delta had left behind its past as the most racist place in America to the extent that the white and black citizens had realized that they have to live together. And they do, for the most part, in a kind of polite, uneasy truce. Except for the urban homelessness I see in Atlanta, I have never seen the kind of shocking poverty I’ve seen in the Delta anywhere else in America. In the nineties, and I imagine still, there were/are people living without electricity and running water.

The blues are still in the air in the Delta; the blues are still played on AM radio as popular music, and the music is still played for dancers in juke joints, along with later styles of African-American popular music. And for a blues lover like me, holy sites abound. I have visited the graves of Charley Patton, Robert Johnson (all three of them!)**, and Sonny Boy Williamson. I have visited Dockery Plantation (ground zero for the blues if anywhere is) and stood in the remains of Muddy Waters cabin on Stovall Plantation.*** I've stood where the Southern crosses the Dog**** and stood on the platform at the depot in Tutwiler, where W.C. Handy first heard the blues. And I've heard some great Mississippi bluesmen, many of whom are now gone, like Lonnie Pitchford, Jack Owens, Eugene Powell (who recorded in the 1930’s as Sonny Boy Nelson), Wade Walton, Othar Turner, and on one amazing evening, Frank Frost.

Although he appeared briefly in the movie Crossroads, Frank Frost (1936-1999) was never famous, except to hard-core blues aficionados and Delta juke joint patrons. An accomplished blues singer, guitarist, keyboard and harp player, he never left the Delta for any length of time. Along with guitarist/bassist Big Jack Johnson and drummer Sam Carr, he was a member of the long-lived juke joint trio The Jelly Roll Kings, who were originally Frank Frost and the Nighthawks. During 25 years of barnstorming the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta areas, they managed to record three albums; the last one, from which the lyrics in my last post were taken, was recorded shortly before Frost’s death.

In the late 1990’s, I was at a Sunflower River Blues Festival performance by Greenville, Mississippi harmonica player Willie Foster; in the backing band were Sam Carr and Frank Frost. Frost seemed old and tired; he hunched over his organ and pecked out chords in a somewhat detached manner. Foster started urging him to come up and sing a feature number; he refused at first, but finally was persuaded. He pulled a harmonica out of his pocket as he shuffled***** to the front of the stage, counted off a tempo, and was instantly transformed as he sang and played one of his signature songs, “Midnight Prowler.” For five minutes, he WAS the Midnight Prowler - he stalked around the stage as he played and sang like a man possessed. Then the song ended, and he became Frank Frost again - old, tired, and damaged by alcohol. He took his place behind the keyboard and spent the rest of the set hunched over and uninvolved. It was an amazing and moving moment.

*A case can be made for the blues originating in Texas and spreading first to Mississippi, instead of vice versa. It's six of one/half a dozen of another: both places were brutally racist.

**He was a black man with a common name who died in Mississippi in the thirties; it's no wonder that we don't know exactly where he was buried. Three cemeteries have claims to his "official" final resting place.

***One of the delicious ironies of the Delta blues is that Howard Stovall III, the grandson of Muddy's employer, plays keyboard with Arthneice Jones' Stone Gas Band, an otherwise all-black blues band. The irony is not lost on Howard III, as he has made clear.

****The Southern Railroad once crossed the Yazoo Delta (Yellow Dog) line in Moorhead, Mississippi, as celebrated in "Yellow Dog Blues."

*****I'm aware of the racist implications of this verb, but there is no other way to describe Frost's gait.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Blues Poetry

I love the blues for many reasons, musical and non-musical. One reason is that the best blues lyrics rise to the level of poetry, although they are usually more homespun poetry than high art. Here (from memory) are some blues lyrics that I find moving, wise, funny, or chilling. They range from single lines to complete verses to entire songs.

It takes two to tango, but only one to mess around.
- Cousin Joe, "It Takes Two to Tango"

There ain't no heaven, ain't no burnin' hell.
Where I go when I die can't nobody tell.
- Son House, "Preachin' Blues" (also used by John Lee Hooker)

New York's a pretty city; the lights, they shine so bright,
New York's a pretty city; the lights, they shine so bright,
But I'd rather be in New Orleans, walkin' by candlelight.
- Genevieve Davis, "I Haven't Got a Dollar to Pay the House Rent Man"
This was recorded in New Orleans in 1927. I know how she feels.

Who's that yonder comin' down the road?
Comin' down the road?
Cryin', who's that yonder comin' down the road?
Well, it looks like Maggie, baby, but she walks too slow.
- Tommy Johnson, "Maggie Campbell Blues"
This is one of my favorite blues verses. This verse is like a Mississippi haiku - an image, a snapshot of a moment, but there's a lot there. Is the person on the road a woman who resembles Maggie, or is it Maggie, walking slowly and feeling the weight of her lover's (the singer's?) infidelity? And who is the "baby" the singer is addressing, and where are they? This verse stands alone in the song - none of the other verses address the situation; the rest are unrelated, traditional blues verses, although they also contain beautiful images, like this one:

Sun's gonna shine in my back door someday.
Cryin', sun's gonna shine in my back door someday.
Wind's gonna change and blow my blues away.
- Tommy Johnson, "Maggie Campbell Blues"

Don't say I don't love you 'cause I don't hold you in my arms;
Don't say I don't love you 'cause I don't hold you in my arms;
I'm a country boy, and I'll always treat you wrong.
- Muddy Waters, "Country Boy"

See my jumper hangin' out on the line.
See my jumper, lord, hangin' out on the line.
By that you know something's on my mind.

I wouldn't have been here if it hadn't been for you.
I wouldn't have been here, baby, if it hadn't been for you.
Way down here, way you wanna do.

Fix my supper, let me go to bed.
Fix my supper, lord, let me go to bed.
This white lightning done gone to me head.

This white lightning done gone to me head.
- R. L. Burnside, "Jumper on the Line"
This is the entire song, and it's another one of my favorites - a portrait of a deeply depressed man whose life has gone terribly wrong, but with nothing more than hints why.

I'm gonna to leave you, baby, before I commit a crime.
- Howlin' Wolf, "Commit a Crime"

Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down.
Frank Frost, you better lay that bottle down.
If you don't lay that bottle down, that bottle gonna lay you down.
- Big Jack Johnson, "Frank Frost Blues"
As Big Jack sang this in the studio, Frank Frost was only feet away, playing organ. A few months later, Frank was dead.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Stating the Obvious

This may be like saying that the sun rising every morning is amazing (although we usually don't notice it), but Miles Davis's Kind of Blue is a masterpiece.

Well, duh! That's like saying, "Hey, you ought to hear the Fifth Symphony by that guy Beethoven. It's pretty good." Anyone who gets into classical music discovers Beethoven's Fifth, listens to it over and over, marvels at the construction and imagination, and then takes it for granted or ignores it. You know it's great, but after a certain point you don't listen to it regularly. I remember a music history professor during my undergraduate years who heard the Fifth Symphony performed after not hearing for a couple of years. She came into class gushing over it, amazed at how fresh it seemed.

That was my reaction the other night when I put on Kind of Blue. I had a very long day, including an elementary band concert, and when I got home I announced to Karen that I needed to go for one of the biggies - Miles or Ellington - to center myself. For some reason, I went with "the greatest jazz album of all time." Yeah, I knew it was good, but I had forgotten how good. Almost every detail is perfect - every chord voicing, every bass note (well, almost), every drumset choice. And every one of Miles' solos is the epitome of improvisation as beautiful melody - it's hard to imagine that any of the trumpet solos could be any better. Some of the saxophone aren't quite to that level, but they're pretty good. You can almost see the light bulb going off over Coltrane's head - he took the lessons of this album and ran with them. And although I sometimes find Jimmy Cobb's drumming boring, it seems just right on Kind of Blue.

Perfection is rare or nonexistent in this world, but Kind of Blue comes pretty close.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Two Musicians You May Have Never Heard Of

One consequence of having a ridiculously large record/CD collection is that I sometimes, in the course of perusing my shelves, come across CDs (and less often, records) that I had forgotten I had, or that I bought, listened to once, and filed away.* Recently I have listened to Paul Motian's 1977 ECM album Dance several times; I was taken with it enough to burn it to CD for several friends. The saxophonist on the album is Charles Brackeen, an elusive figure influenced by Ornette Coleman's music. His playing on Motian's album impressed me, but I was a little surprised when I came across his 1987 CD Worshippers Come Nigh when I was looking for something to listen to tonight - I had forgotten all about it.

I found Worshippers Come Nigh in a used CD store several years ago, but I know I haven't played it more than twice. I'm not sure why it didn't grab me before, but tonight I was ready, and I was mightily impressed. Brackeen's writing and playing is assured and inspired; he sounds a little like Ornette, a little like Sonny Rollins, a little like Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, but always like himself. And the band kills! Before he decided to reinvent himself as a guitar-strumming blues/folk guy, Olu Dara was one of my favorite jazz trumpeters (or cornetists, to be accurate). His playing is (was) always interesting and thoughtful - no less an authority than Lester Bowie called him "the best note selector in the business." And the powerful bass playing made me think, "Oh my god, who is that?" A quick look at the back cover revealed - I should have known - the late Fred Hopkins, who to me always sounded like two or three guys playing bass at the same time. Hopkins is paired with the great Andrew Cyrille to make an extremely strong rhythm section. A fabulous recital, and a nice surprise.

For a couple of mornings last week, I listened to a CD by Kid Thomas Valentine on my way to work. Kid Thomas (1896-1987) was a paradox: a New Orleans trumpeter completely untouched by Louis Armstrong, a limited musician who could play anything, and a local dance-band musician who was known and loved all over the world.

The first time I heard Kid Thomas (on an LP by the New Orleans saxophonist Captain John Handy), I was not impressed. His tone seemed crude, even ugly, and he obviously didn't have much technique. His vibrato was strange, and he was given to producing shakes which had the effect of obscuring the pitch. It was only after becoming familiar with the work of the aforementioned Lester Bowie that I started to enjoy Thomas's work. He and Bowie seemed to be mining some of the same territory, even though Thomas was a traditional New Orleans player and Bowie an avant-gardist. The distorted shakes started to make sense.

One thing I love about Kid Thomas is the fact that, in spite of efforts by record producers and jazz historians, he seemed to have no sense of himself as a "jazz" musician. He was, for most of his life, a working dance-band trumpeter, playing (with his six-piece band) for dancers in the New Orleans suburbs of Algiers and Marrero. New Orleans jazz classics, waltzes, pop songs, and even rock and roll were all grist to his mill - he played them all in the same rough style. My favorite Kid Thomas album is The Dance Hall Years (American Music), which documents selections from two dance hall gigs, one from the middle of the fifties and one from 1964. His band plays, among other things, "Jambalaya," "Blueberry Hill," and "Shake, Rattle and Roll." There is not a "jazz tune" to be found.

*Pardon the Johnsonian construction of this sentence. Sometime I'll write about my unaccountable love for Samuel Johnson.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Anthony Braxton - Praise and Reservations

Anthony Braxton has long been one of my favorite musicians. He was one of the artists on the fateful Arista sampler LP that my sweet mom brought home from the junk store for me when I was 15. She would often pick up jazz records for me when she came across them while rummaging through salvage stores. She could tell by the instrumentation of this one that it must be jazz, so she bought it for me and changed my life - it was my introduction to free jazz. As a teenager trying to learn all I could about jazz, I had read about this apparently advanced form of the music, but couldn't imagine what it sounded like. Now, all of a sudden, I was confronted with Anthony Braxton, Oliver Lake, Albert Ayler, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

The AEOC track was too brief to make anything of, and the Ayler track frankly repelled me.* But the Braxton and Lake tracks appealed to me right away - they were weird, with odd note choices, but they swung like hell, and it was apparent to me that these guys knew what they were doing.

So I started exploring Braxton's music; I found a cheap (but sealed) copy of For Alto in another junk shop. And believe it or not, I enjoyed four sides of unaccompanied saxophone solos from the first hearing. I started working my way through the Arista albums that were coming out at the time, and particularly enjoyed the big band album and For Trio. I've kept up with his music and have (for the most part) been impressed by his continued growth.

But there are a couple of issues on which I'm a Braxton heretic. I know that Braxton considers himself a more of a composer than a jazz saxophonist. It first, I was only interested in his jazz work; I didn't care for his strictly composed music at all. But as time went by, I started checking it out and enjoying it more. I remember sitting down to listen to some of his four-orchestra piece and deciding in advance that I would just listen to two sides. After two (out of six) records sides, I didn't want to stop, so I kept listening.

More recently, however, I have developed real reservations about AB's compositional abilities. His composed music appeals to me far less than it used to, especially since I have become more familiar with 20th-century "classical" music. A recent listening to the four-orchestra piece had me comparing it unfavorably to Gruppen and Carre, the Stockhausen multi-orchestra works that inspired it. And going back to other Braxton compositions leads me to believe, as much as I hate to say it, that Braxton frankly does not know much about Composition with a capital C.

Over and over again his note choices seem to be arbitrary. In the music of equally "difficult" composers such as Varese, Milton Babbitt, and Braxton's hero, Stockhausen, this is not the case at all. In their music each note, even in a complex web of sound, is carefully chosen and has a point. Even if the listener doesn't "understand" the music of these composers, it's not difficult to hear, or at least sense, the unity of their compositions.

And much of Braxton's composed music doesn't really go anywhere - it starts, goes on for awhile, then stops. On the surface, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that - it's almost a description of Stockhausen's "moment form," in which whatever is happening at that moment in the piece is what's important. But Braxton's "moments" seem kind of random, and not necessarily interesting.

I know that disliking AB's composed music is not politically correct; the enlightened listener is supposed to hear all of his output as one. But I think, and I know that this is going to come out wrong, that it's not that I'm not enlightened enough, it's that I'm too enlightened. I've heard too much similar, but better, music to really enjoy Braxton's efforts at long-form composition. I see my relationship to Braxton's composed music like this: at first I didn't know enough to appreciate it, then I knew just enough to enjoy it, and now I know too much to enjoy it. In a way that's kind of sad, but I wouldn't want to go back.

The other issue on which I'm a Braxton heretic involves the direction much of his music has taken over the last ten years, and I'm not alone in my reservations here. Most of AB's output over the last decade has involved what he calls his Ghost Trance Music (GTM). While I don't totally understand what he's getting at with this style, he seems to be trying to induce a Coltrane-esque state of heightened consciousness. In practice, the music seems to consist of long series of quarter notes, interspersed at times with flurries of faster note values. I have acquired six CDs worth of this material in an effort to appreciate it, and finally have to admit that I just don't like this music. The almost constant thud of all or most of the instruments playing quarter notes together is wearing and annoying. All of the GTM albums I have contain some great playing, but overall they are plain grating.

But most of Braxton's small group music, which most listeners would refer to as his jazz work (and which he call "coordinate music"), is stunning in its invention. His mid-seventies quartets with Kenny Wheeler and George E. Lewis represent a high point, as does his later quartet with Marilyn Crispell. And a couple of new or recent CDs represent Braxton at his best: Organic Resonance is one set of a duo concert with trumpeter Leo Smith; they play compositions by both men. The second set has been issued, too, but I haven't heard it. And the very new Beyond Quantum has Braxton in a free-jazz blowing session with William Parker and Milford Graves.

I guess that Anthony Braxton has tried so many different directions that all of them can't be expected to be equally good. I'm grateful for his best music, and as for the rest - sorry I can't follow you there, AB.

*More on this in the future.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


There are several things I've been wanting to write about, but they've all been swept away by my discovery of a recording of a March, 1971 concert by Circle. Now I've got to write a few paragraphs in praise of a true supergroup of avant jazz.

Circle was Anthony Braxton, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, and Barry Altschul. The group lasted, kind of incredibly, for a year, from around August, 1970 to August of '71. I say that it was incredible that they lasted that long because these four extremely talented musicians, while they shared common areas of musical interest, were pulling in somewhat different directions. They were all interested in and adept at free improvisation - without counting minutes, I would say that about half of their recorded output is improvised without the benefit of any predetermined material. Braxton was just as interested in composition, and presumably felt somewhat limited by the free-blowing format the group often adopted. And Corea's interest in Scientology led him to direct his music energies into more accessible avenues, culminating in the Return to Forever groups.

But during its short life, Circle produced some amazing music. Their recorded legacy is pretty small, though. The best-known Circle album is the ECM Paris Concert, recorded at a February, 1971 show; this was originally released as a double album and has been continually in print since. Three August, 1970 sessions for Blue Note resulted in five and a half LP sides worth of material, released under Corea's name five and eight years later. Japanese Sony released two Circle albums: 50 minutes of a November, 1970 show came out as Live In German Concert (sic), while Gathering documented a long improvisation in a New York Studio. Then there is an obviously bootleg Corea album with a long Circle performance of "Nefertiti" from an Italian concert.

The material ranges from free improvisations to abstract versions of standards ("There is No Greater Love" was a favorite) to originals by Braxton, Corea, and Holland. Braxton's originals were complex and demanding, and it's hard to imagine that any other group at the time could have given him better performances of his music. In this respect, the Hamburg show I recently came across is very revealing. The group recorded Braxton's Composition 6F several times, but this show also includes his Compositions 6A and 6I, as well as Corea's "Rhymes," a piece the group never otherwise recorded.

What a group! Braxton was at his fieriest during this period, and Corea was at his most exploratory and interesting. It was through the Paris Concert album that I became aware of what a virtuoso Dave Holland is, and Altschul's range of percussion colors is amazing. There was plenty of doubling to increase the palette of timbres: Braxton used his full arsenal of woodwinds, from sopranino sax to contrabass clarinet; Holland played cello and guitar as well as bass, and they all doubled on percussion.

These days, Circle seems to be remembered mostly as a way station in Braxton and Corea's careers. About the only serious critical attention I have seen given to the group is in Ronald Radano's book on Braxton, New Musical Figurations. Paris Concert is the place to start checking out Circle. If you like that, search out the other stuff, if you can find it. The Japanese albums are pretty rare*, but the Blue Notes show up in used record stores pretty frequently. The Hamburg show can be found on at inconstantsol.blogspot.com. A great, detailed discography of the group is at jazzdiscography.com.

Long live the music of this short-lived group.

*Of course I have them. Don't be ridiculous.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

For the End of Time

Except for performing ensembles, the two undergraduate college courses that have meant the most to me 30 years later are my first English literature course, Introduction to Poetry (I'm embarrassed that I don't remember the professor's name), and 20th Century Composition, taught with passion and deep knowledge by Tom Wallace*. I remember Tom analyzing Varese's Density 21.5 in great detail, dissecting it interval by interval. But the greatest gift Tom gave the students in that class was his discussion of Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. I had never even heard of this piece, but it immediately became one of favorite "classical" pieces.

It's also the subject of book I'm just finishing up: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin. The Quartet is worthy of a book, because its story is one of the great classical music legends. As I learned in Tom's class, the piece was written and premiered in 1941 in Stalag VIII A, while Messiaen, along with the other musicians who premiered the piece, was a prisoner of war. Rischin's book debunks some of the myths I "knew," such as the story that the cello at the premiere only had three strings and that the clarinet had a broken key. It does make clear just how much this music meant to the musicians and the prisoners who heard it. It's fair to assume that most of the prisoners didn't "understand" this complex piece, but it apparently touched most of them deeply.

It continues to touch me deeply. After studying the piece 30 years ago, I went out and bought the LP recording by the chamber group Tashi. 15 years later I replaced the worn-out LP with the CD edition. Inspired by Rischin's book, I also just ordered a CD of the first recording, with Messiaen on piano.

Messiaen's quartet is inspired by the Book of Revelation, in particular by Chapter 10, in which the seventh angel blows the trumpet which marks the end of Time. Seven of the eight movements are moving, inspiring, frightening, or otherwise quite serious, but the brief fourth movement ("Interlude") is more lighthearted. The very slow fifth and eighth movements, "Praise to the Eternity of Jesus" for cello and piano and "Praise to the Immortality of Jesus" for violin and piano, are two of the most absolutely beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard; they should be heard by every musician and music lover, even those who don't care for "modern" classical music. They really evoke timelessness and eternity, even for someone like me who doesn't believe I have an immortal soul that's going to live anywhere when I die.

The third movement is a clarinet solo, "Abyss of the Birds." On the Tashi recording, the great Richard Stoltzman is the clarinetist. His control is so amazing that there are times when you become aware that there is a note sounding, but you can't exactly say when it began - it came from nowhere and at some undefined point became audible. I was lucky enough to hear Stoltzman play this movement in concert a few years ago. By the way, one of the beauties of Messiaen's music is that he didn't just evoke bird song with a few cliches, he transcribed hundreds of bird songs exactly and used them in his compositions.

I still remember two of Messiaen's techniques which give this piece much of its flavor - Modes of Limited Transposition and Non-retrogradable Rhythms. The first refers to scales which can only be transposed a few times before they return to their original pitch set. The simplest example is a whole-tone scale; it can only be transposed once. When you transpose it up a half-step a second time, it duplicates the pitches of the original scale. These scales have a color and flavor unlike the usual major and minor scales. A non-retrogradable rhythm is a rhythmic palindrome, a rhythm that is the same when it is reversed. A simple example would be half note, quarter note, whole note, quarter note, half note. Messiaen's rhythms are much more complex, however, and gave the musicians at the premiere quite a bit of difficulty.

One of the most touching things in Rischin's book is the fact that Henri Akoka, the clarinetist in Stalag VIII A, never lost his clarinet. He kept it with him when he was captured, and even managed to hold on to it through two unsuccessful and, finally, a successful escape attempt.

To be totally honest, inspiring bits like that are mixed into an overall somewhat dry tone in Rischin's book. While I have enjoyed reading it, I don't recommend it wholeheartedly. But if you don't know Messiaen's Quatour pour la Fin du Temps, I wholeheartedly suggest you do yourself a favor and hear it.

*I still see Tom occasionally in his capacity as trumpet player with the Peachtree Brass Quintet; the group sometimes plays concerts at one of my schools. When it does, I know I'm in for it - at the end of the segment demonstrating the history of popular music from ragtime to rock, he always makes me "volunteer" to come up and do the twist, much to the delight of my students.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

THE Quintet

What's the greatest jazz band of all time? Well, in a lot of respects it's a silly question. But if one were to take it seriously, various bands led by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, and John Coltrane (among others) all have a case for the title. But my vote would go to a band that changed the way "straight-ahead" and freer styles of jazz are played: the 1964-68 Miles Davis Quintet. You know, the one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.

I bought the great Miles Smiles album by this group in 1978. To use a well-worn cliche, it changed my life. The "freebop" approach - swinging hard with no (or very abstract) chord changes - appealed to me as a vibrant, vital, contemporary approach to the jazz language. Even though I came upon this album 12 years after it was recorded, and it is now 42 years since the sessions, it seems just as vital today.

The band's approach to standards also remains unsurpassed. It was years before I could "drop the needle" in the middle of any of the 1965 Plugged Nickel sessions and have a reasonable chance of knowing what song they were playing. And I know all those chord changes! This band took the changes "out" to the limits of standard harmony, but could always bring them back to earth. I've heard lots of bands since use this approach, but none has ever gone further than The Quintet.

The outstanding Atlanta drummer Lee Goodness subbed with my quartet on several occasions back in the 90s. He was able to play my music, but it kind of puzzled him - it seemed kind of out in left field to him. A couple of years later, I saw Lee, and he said, "I got the Miles Smiles album and said, 'This is where Jeff Crompton gets that shit from!'"

A couple of nights ago I wanted to hear this band play "Footprints," but didn't want to hear the familiar Miles Smiles version. I had two live versions to choose from. (Ah, the joys of a ridiculously extensive recorded music collection!) I chose an Antwerp concert from October, 1967. What a band and what a show! Miles was great; the interaction of the band was amazing, and Wayne Shorter was just scary. He always sounded good in the studio, but there he never reached the heights he was capable of on a good night on stage. Listen to Shorter on the Plugged Nickel recordings - "armed and ready for battle," as one commentator said.

Before the last Fourth Ward Afro-Klezmer Ensemble gig, I was talking with Ben Gettys and bari saxist Bill Nittler. I told Bill that Ben had heard this Miles group in 1968. For a few seconds Bill just stared at Ben without saying a word. That's the way I feel about this group.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Ah, Bach!

As I was driving around running errands yesterday, I had the Bach Brandenburg Concertos from the 1950 Prades Bach Festival in the CD player. These are some of the first LP recordings of Bach, conducted by the great Pablo Casals in the little town in which he was living at the time. By today's standards, these versions of the Brandenburgs are all wrong. The orchestra, although not that large, sounds heavy; Casals' approach is far too romantic; the tempos are not right (the first movement of the second concerto is as fast as I've ever heard it, while the opening of the third is slower than I've heard); the instrumentation has no regard for historical accuracy. Not only are modern instruments used, but the trumpet player at the festival was under contract to a different record company, so Marcel Mule's soprano (or sopranino) sax was substituted in the second concerto.

With the hindsight of fifty-plus years of music research and refinement of performance practice, we know that Casals' approach was all wrong. But I've got to say that Casals' Bach still sounds pretty good. Bach's music not only can survive a wide range of interpretation, it seems to thrive in all sorts of wayward renderings. I love Casals' Bach, as I love Joshua Rifkin's historically accurate readings of the cantatas, Glenn Gould's brilliant and eccentric versions of the keyboard music, and even Walter/Wendy Carlos' accurate, but strange-sounding electronic realizations. Bach shines through it all. I'm not really qualified to say why this is, but maybe it's because Bach's music has a certain objectivity to it - he wasn't trying to express himself as much as trying to produce works of beauty to glorify God. Whether or not that's what his music actually did, or what Bach's interpreters are trying to do, is beside the point. Paradoxically, Bach is all over and through his music at the same time he leaves himself out of it.

I don't know if that makes any sense, but in any case, Bach's music is as immediate to listeners today as it was 250 years ago. Maybe more so - Bach was admired at the time, but at his greatest fame was considered kind of old-fashioned. He's like King Oliver's Creole Jazz Band, which achieved the ultimate in perfection in the New Orleans jazz style just as that style was falling out of favor.

Here are my three favorite Bach recordings; two are rather eccentric, while the third is inevitable.

1. Chorale Prelude and Fugue from motet "Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied," BWV 225 by the Rascher Saxophone Quartet, from the album Music for Saxophones on the Cala label. I know, I know. This instrument wasn't even invented until a hundred years after Bach's death. But this version has a purity and beauty which is really touching. And the Music for Saxophones album is certainly in the running as the greatest classical saxophone recording of all time.

2. Choral-Prelude: "Allein Gott in der Hӧh, sei Ehr," BWV 622, 1952 and 1962 versions by Samuil Feinberg, from the album Russian Piano School: The Great Pianists (now out of print). Feinberg transcribed lots of Bach's organ music for piano, including this lovely Prelude. His first recording of the piece is beautiful, but the version he recorded two and a half weeks before his death in 1962 is heartbreaking. It's almost a full three minutes longer than the 1952 version, as Feinberg savors every harmony and every cadence; it's obvious to the listener that he knew his time wasn't long.

3. The Six Cello Suites by Pablo Casals, recorded for EMI between 1936 and 1939 and never out of print since. These readings are on many lists of the greatest classical recordings of all time. I fell in love with them on first hearing, but later decided that they weren't right - that they were too romantic and not "Baroque" enough. I've come full circle, and now pass up more "correct" versions for Casals, who gives these mysterious pieces a depth, nobility, and spiritual dimension which is hard to resist. These may be my favorite recordings in the western classical tradition.

As for the title of this post, who can sum up this great composer better than Radar O'Reilly?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

B, B & B

Any Ellington aficionado knows that the above initials stand for Black, Brown and Beige. B, B & B is Ellington's longest, most ambitious work, and I've spent lots of time over the last week listening to it, reading about it, and generally becoming reacquainted with it. Geek alert: heavy music history and musical analysis follow.

Black, Brown & Beige was composed for the Duke's first Carnegie Hall concert, which took place on January 23, 1943. Ellington described the piece as a "tone parallel to the history of the American Negro," and parts of the work fit this programatic idea very well. The "Work Song" section certainly sounds like the folk music of its title, and Johnny Hodges' reading of the "Come Sunday" melody evokes a spiritual longing, rather than the erotic longing Hodges was so good at expressing. But like any music, the piece stands or falls as music, not as a history lesson or a depiction of something concrete.

The history: Duke's band played the entire piece only at its Carnegie Hall premiere and at several other concerts around that time period. It was recorded at the premiere and was finally released on an album 34 years later. The critics who were at Carnegie Hall, in their infinite wisdom and after one hearing, pretty much ripped the piece apart, and Ellington never played or recorded the entire work again (although he came pretty close at times). At his Carnegie Hall concerts of the next few years, he played excerpts, and was in turn criticized for not playing the entire piece. Go figure. When the 1942-44 recording strike ended, he recorded about 22 minutes (the full piece is twice that long) of B, B & B for Victor, including the "Work Song," and "Come Sunday" sections of Black, "The Blues" and two short dance excerpts from Brown, and about a minute (the "Sugar Hill Penthouse" theme) of Beige. This recording is well worth hearing; the excerpts are well-chosen and well-performed. I probably listen to this recording more frequently than to the entire 1943 version.

Ellington couldn't get B, B & B out of his system, however, and continued performing parts of it throughout the rest of his career. The 1958 Black, Brown & Beige album he recorded for Columbia has the Black movement on side one and a version of "Come Sunday" with Mahalia Jackson on side two. He also featured Black during his 1965 European tour - I have a version from a concert in Paris in my collection. And he recorded the almost the entire piece - minus some introductions and transitions - in pieces between 1965 and 1971; this has been issued as Vol. 10 of The Private Collection.

Most of Ellington's longer works are suites - sets of short, loosely related movements which stand more or less on their own. There is no real musical precedent for B, B & B, but it's certainly more symphonic in its length and scope. Each of its three movements is composed of more or less three sections:

Black: Work Song; Spiritual (Come Sunday); Light
Brown: West Indian Dance; Emancipation Celebration (The Lighter Attitude); The Blues (Mauve)
Beige: Cy Runs Rock Waltz; Beige; Sugar Hill Penthouse (Creamy Brown).

Ellington used all of these subtitles at various times. And no, I have no idea what "Cy Runs Rock Waltz" means.

Black is the longest and most well-constructed movement. The "Work Song" has a couple of strong motives, like a symphonic work, rather than well-developed melodies. That's not a negative criticism, by the way - motives are easier to work with and develop than long melodies (think Beethoven's Fifth). The "Come Sunday" melody is, of course, one of the most beautiful written by Ellington or anyone else, and Hodges' rendering is ravishing. "Light" winds up the movement by combining elements of the "Work Song" with the "Come Sunday" melody. This is a well-constructed piece of music with little waste, despite its 20-minute length. Ellington must have felt that this was the strongest movement, since it formed the basis or the entirety of his later B, B & B performance.

Brown consists of some attractive parts that are not tied together as well. The transition between the "West Indian Dance" and the "Emancipation Proclamation" is kind of forced and trite, and there is no transition to "The Blues;" the "Emancipation Proclamation" just stops and "The Blues" starts. The latter section is excellent, however, especially in the original version with the great Betty Roche doing the vocal.

Beige is usually considered the weakest of the movements and the one most showing the pressures of Ellington's deadline. It sounds pretty good to me now, and has at least one outstanding melody: the one shared by the waltz (in 3/4 time, of course) and "Sugar Hill Penthouse" (in 4/4). The movement does ramble some, and it sounds to me as if the Duke didn't really know how to end the piece; the ending he came up with reeks of Hollywood. In any case, Ellington himself didn't seem to consider this movement up to the level of the other two; it got pretty short shrift in the "official" 1944 recording, and he left out the opening and closing passages when he recorded it in 1965.

Although B, B & B has enough flaws that it can't be considered Ellington's best extended work (The Tattooed Bride or Harlem, maybe?), it does have some of the Duke's finest writing, along with a certain amount of filler. It certainly deserves to be more well known than it is. Compare it to Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin's piece, much beloved by concertgoers and studied in music appreciation classes, has some great melodies linked by pretty lame transitions. Some of Ellington's transitions are weak, but overall, B, B & B has to be considered a more well-constructed piece than the more famous Rhapsody, and the melodies are just as good. Give it a listen: the 1943 premiere is on a Prestige CD, the 1944 "official" excerpts are on RCA/BMG, and the 1965-71 Private Collection version is on Saja, if you can still find it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Dancing to the Duke Ellington Orchestra

The other night I felt like listening to some Ellington before bed, so I picked out a CD pretty much at random. It was a recording of the Ellington band playing a dance in California in 1958. The gig was recorded by the great west coast engineer Wally Heider; the tape was later found in Duke's archive and issued on CD.

As I listened, I was struck by what an amazing occurrence this was: these well-dressed couples, out for a pleasant evening of dancing, had their dance music provided by the greatest jazz orchestra of all time, led by one of the country's most original and accomplished composers. Amazing! I mean, I knew that the Ellington band, as well as all the other big bands, played for dances all the time. Somehow, though, it had never stuck me just what an odd and, well, amazing (to overuse the word) thing this was. I think it really hit me when the first piece the band played at this dance was "Main Stem," which I have always considered one of Ellington's minor masterpieces. To have this music at your dance! Amazing.

Sure, the band also played lots of standards and ballads that Ellington knew the dancers would enjoy, but mixed in plenty of great Ellington music like "Stompy Jones" and "Such Sweet Thunder." "Mood Indigo" was practically required at every dance, as well as every concert or club date that the band played. But Ellington kept changing the arrangement to keep it fresh. At the 1958 dance I listened to, it featured Shorty Baker on trumpet; at other times it featured a trio of two trombones and bass clarinet.

There are several CDs of Ellington dance dates out there. One of the best is the album first issued on two LPs as All Star Road Band; the CD title was changed (for some reason) to All Star Road Band Vol. II. This might be my favorite Ellington album from the 1950s, although I would hate to have to make that choice. The band is playing for dancers in the booming metropolis of Carrollton, Pennsylvania in 1956; they are in good spirits, the piano is in tune, and Ellington calls an interesting mix of tunes.

The most astounding Ellington dance recording is, without a doubt, the famous 1940 Fargo, North Dakota album. This is almost the absolute greatest lineup of the greatest jazz orchestra of all time. I say "almost" because Cootie Williams had just left the band; it was apparently Ray Nance's first gig with Ellington. This was the period when Ellington was turning out a masterpiece every other week, as one commentator has said. At Fargo, the band played "Ko-Ko," "Harlem Airshaft," "Warm Valley," "Never No Lament," "Rockin' in Rhythm," and "Conga Brava," among others. Two outstanding pieces of Ellingtonia, "Sepia Panorama" and "Across the Track Blues," are twice as long as the studio versions. And then there is "Stardust" - four and a half minutes of stunning Ben Webster saxophony.

Did the patrons of these dances know how luck they were? At least some of them did, apparently. By all accounts, every Ellington dance attracted a crowd who didn't dance at all, but just hung around the bandstand and soaked it all in. Karen's aunt Dorothy was one of the lucky ones - she attended a dance in California a month after the Fargo date. The band was Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra.


Sunday, August 24, 2008


Cornetist and pianist Bix Beiderbecke (1903-1931) was one of the great jazz musicians of his or any other time. His contemporaries always first mentioned his sound: "Like shooting bullets at a bell;" "Like a girl saying yes." He was the first modernist of jazz, exploring chord extensions and alterations years before Art Tatum and Charlie Parker. He was perhaps the first master of the ballad in jazz, although his ballad tempos were not as slow we would later come to expect. His playing was a largely successful search for beauty in the heat of 1920s jazz.

But how does one make that case 77 years after his death? What tracks do we play for the nonbeliever to convince him of Bix's genius? It's not so easy - Bix arguably never recorded in a truly appropriate, sympathetic setting. Some of his greatest solos are gems set in plaster - he emerges from the depths of Jean Goldkette's or Paul Whiteman's dance bands for four, eight, sixteen, or (if we're lucky) thirty-two sparkling measures, only to disappear again into the morass. Before and after Bix's improvisations, we are treated to clunky rhythms, androgynous countertenors, and painfully earnest "symphonic" jazz.

But it can be argued that the large bands Bix played with were better settings for him that those small recording groups with which he tried to play pure jazz. On those records Bix is a racehorse yoked to a wagon; no one else is in his league. At times it is clear that his colleagues on these records are not just unable to keep up with Bix, they are incapable of swinging at all.

All of this, coupled with the sometimes archaic recording technology of the 1920s, makes for somewhat rough sledding for the contemporary listener. A potential convert to Bixism needs to come to the table with open ears and a sense of historical context. When I first heard Bix with the Wolverines, I was familiar with the Armstrong Hot Fives, so I had no problems with the style of the band or the sound of the records. The Beiderbecke solo on "Jazz Me Blues" knocked me out the first time I heard it - relaxed, flowing, and with impeccable note selection. It probably didn't hurt that I had read Ralph Berton's Remembering Bix, so I was familiar with the Beiderbecke of legend - at least Berton's version.

Here are half a dozen great Bix recordings. They may or may not convince the non-believer.

"Jazz Me Blues" - Wolverine Orchestra (aka The Wolverines), 1924. It's hard to believe that Bix was just 20 when he improvised this masterful solo.

"Davenport Blues" - Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers, 1925. Beiderbecke overlays the basic chord progression with ninths, elevenths, flatted fifths, and whole tone scales, but it all flows together; it never sounds like an exercise.

"Singin' the Blues" - Frank Trumbauer Orchestra, 1927. Perhaps Bix's most brilliant solo, and the first great ballad performance in jazz. This record had a profound impact on the jazz musicians of the time, black and white. Lester Young is said to have carried a copy in his tenor case.

"In a Mist" - piano solo, 1927. One of the few piano recordings Bix made, this mostly composed piece blends jazz with the kind of advanced harmonies Bix was exploring at the time.

"Sweet Sue" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1928. It is an act of faith to listen to this recording. The first three and a half minutes of this portentous and pretentious arrangement are so bad that it's hard to believe that anything could be worth enduring them. Jack Fulton's singing is like nothing you're ever heard, and like nothing you'll ever want to hear again. But if you make it through all that, there is a magnificent 32-bar Bix solo that floats and dances over the rhythm section. It's one of the most "modern" and imaginative things he ever played.

"China Boy" - Paul Whiteman Orchestra, 1929. The huge Whiteman band almost swings here, and Beiderbecke's 16 bars are on the level of "Sweet Sue."

I could list many more, but if you haven't heard Bix, check out some of those. The legend of Bix - youthful prodigy, single-minded devotion to music, alcohol abuse, early death - is probably more well-known than the actual music, but the music triumphs over it all. Long live Bix.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Record Collectors Anonymous

My name is Jeff, and I'm a record collector.

For years I told myself that it was just about the music. I bought records because I loved music, period. And that is the main reason I buy records (including CDs). But, in retrospect, that has never been the whole story. I still remember the first record I bought - how it smelled, how it felt in my hands, what the typeface on the jacket looked like. I love the music, but I've always loved the objects themselves. My iPod is a great convenience, but it will never be my primary method of listening to music, and not just because of the inferior sound. (To anyone who argues that MP3s sound as good as CDs or mint LPs, I would say that your ears ain't that good.) With my iPod, I can't hold the LP cover or CD booklet, see who wrote the third song, or look up who the trombone player is.

I was looking through a stack of blues 45s at a record show a few years ago, and I thought to myself, "Wouldn't it be cool if Calvin Leavy's Cummins Prison Farm on the Soul Beat label turned up in this stack?" Two records later, there it was. It was a great moment. Cummins Prison Farm was a regional blues hit for Leavy in Arkansas, Mississippi, and Memphis in 1969. While it's not that well-known a song, I certainly could have found it on a blues CD reissue, but I wanted the original 45. Why? I'm not totally sure. Sometimes I think the blues were made to hear three minutes at a time, on 45 or 78 RPM singles. I just know that I wanted both the music and the object. And what a cool thing this single is: three minutes of intense blues with a weird, searingly loud guitar solo in the middle, backed with three minutes of relaxed funk/blues - all encased in a seven-inch circle of vinyl with a big hole in the middle.

A few nights ago I was listening to an album I prize highly: Pee Wee Russell Plays Pee Wee from 1957. I love this album for a lot of reasons. Here are some, arranged from most reasonable to most insane:

1. The music, which is a delight. A solid rhythm section, including Walter Page and George Wettling, provides a surface on which Pee Wee traces his odd, thoughtful, abstract clarinet lines. Pee Wee was one of the real improvisers of jazz; he was never predictable. The music here is excellent.

2. The vinyl is in mint condition, or pretty close. Okay, this is reasonable for a music lover - you want the music to sound as good as possible, so you want the record to be well-pressed and in excellent condition.

3. The album is pretty rare. Hmmm... now we're on slightly less solid ground. I mean, I guess any real music lover would be interested in a hard-to-find example of one of his/her favorite artists. But you can find Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in any mall CD store, and I'd have to say that the Miles album contains greater music.

4. The cover is in mint condition. Okay, this is just ridiculous. If the vinyl is in good condition, a music lover shouldn't care that the front cover, with its semi-abstract painting, is glossy and unstained, or that the seams are solid, with no splits, or that the back cover is full of interesting information about the short-lived Stero-o-craft label. Ridiculous.

5. Finding and buying this record was a rush. This is even more pathetic. Why should my memories of coming across this record in an antique store on Montgomery Street in Savannah still give me pleasure five years later? It's the music that's important.

The last point states a truth about record collecting: part of the appeal is the thrill of the hunt and the excitement of the unexpected find, especially at a bargain price. Musically, A Fireside Chat With Lucifer on the Jupiter label is one of my favorite Sun Ra albums. It's also one of my favorite pieces in my collection, partly because I paid nine dollars for an album that regularly sells for 250 bucks at auction.

Yeah, it's mostly about the music. But I recognize that, to a small extent, I'm a sick boy. Years ago, my friend Brian had a dream about my record collection. As I remember, he dreamed that I had three copies of every record in my collection: one to listen to, one to read the liners notes from, and one to just sit on the shelf. It's sad how cool I think that idea is.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008


About 12 years ago, when I was separated from my first wife and was learning to be single, I got really into three bodies of music: the blues, Sinatra, and opera. All of this music spoke to something I needed at the time: it was all strongly emotional and dramatic – sometimes melodramatic.

My intense love of opera did not really survive the passage of time; the demands it made on my time and suspension of disbelief were too great. (Why do Mozart’s characters say everything three or four times in his operas?) These days, on those rare occasions when I have an hour and a half to two hours to listen to a piece of music, I would rather pull out a Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton concert than La Bohème or Don Giovanni. But I still enjoy and admire opera, even if I don’t love it like I did. I am now more likely to listen to my favorite arias rather than entire operas.

During my opera days, I often read about Enrico Caruso, said to be the greatest tenor, and perhaps the greatest singer, of all time. So I picked up a CD of arias by Caruso, and was actually surprised to find that the hype was justified. I have listened to so much early jazz that the crude acoustic recording was not a problem for me, and the power and expression of Caruso’s voice struck me immediately. The CD I bought 12 years ago has remained the most-played opera CD in my collection.

I still kind of surprised myself when, browsing through Wuxtry Records yesterday, I found myself buying a used copy of The Complete Caruso – 12 CDs at the bargain price of three bucks a disc. What swayed me was the inclusion of his first recordings, made in Italy for G & T Records. (The G & T stands for Gramophone & Typewriter; recording was just a sideline for the company.) After hearing two of the discs, I already think that this was a great acquisition. These recordings demonstrate what has been said about Caruso – that he made the recording industry.

Caruso’s voice was apparently overwhelming in person – soprano Geraldine Farrar has written about missing her entrance in La Bohème during Caruso’s first season at the Met because she was in the wings crying after one of his arias. The prompter finally said, “Well, Miss Farrar, are you going to sing or not?” Amazingly, his voice comes across on the records. Before Caruso, there was not a really compelling reason to buy records – they were crude, scratchy, and less than overwhelming. When Caruso came along, there was every reason to invest in records, even when a Victor Red Seal Caruso record might cost as much as a man’s suit. The records still might be scratchy, but the voice is alive and “real” in a way that few, if any, recorded sounds were at the time. What could be better than to have the greatest musical artist of the time in your living room? I know the impact these recordings have on me; I can imagine how they struck listeners whose only previous records were of brass band marches and sentimental ballads.

These CDs are also interesting as a glimpse into the beginnings of record producing as a craft. The earliest recordings are just Caruso and a piano, singing arias from operas he had recently performed. On one record, the singer enters one measure too early, stops, and reenters at the proper spot. They issued the record anyway, just like “Louie, Louie.”

But by 1912, Victor Records is more ambitious, recording a 15-minute chunk of Act II of Marta on two 12-inch records. Caruso is partnered with other stars from the Met, and the accompaniment is by an orchestra, even if there are some substitutions for hard-to-record instruments. (I swear that I hear a tenor sax subbing for a cello or bassoon.)

In any case, Caruso speaks to me in a way that only the very greatest musicians do. Pretty amazing for music that was recorded from 88 to 106 years ago

Saturday, July 26, 2008

RIP, Johnny Griffin

Robo sent me word yesterday that the Fastest Tenor Player in the West, Johnny Griffin, has died at age 80. Right now my jazz record collection is out of control, but when I was about 20, it consisted of fewer than 35 records. One of those was Mr. Griffin's You Leave Me Breathless, recorded at Copenhagen's Cafe Montmarte in 1967. Then and now, it wasn't Griffin's speed of execution that impressed me, it was his wild imagination. His technique allowed him to play whatever came into his head, and what came into his head was often gasp-inducing. Within a pretty straight-ahead framework, JG played some pretty crazy stuff - and I mean that in a good way.

Listening to this old favorite record again last night, I was struck by how similar Griffin and Von Freeman sound. The basic sound is similar - round and full, but fuzzy around the edges, and with lots of tonal distortion for expressive effect. They both had/have complete command of the tenor, they both like to play long unaccompanied passages which still imply the chord changes, and both overlay a straight bebop context with some pretty outrageous ideas. I checked, and sure enough, both gentlemen went to the same high school and had the same teacher, the famous Walter Dyett. Freeman was born six years before Griffin. Who influenced who? Most likely, they were both dipping out of the same well.

RIP, Johnny Griffin.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Steve Lacy

I can't let this blog go any further without writing about Steve Lacy. Lacy is not just someone whose music I like, but is one of my musical and personal heroes. From his first recordings in 1954 until his death in 2004, Lacy wrote music and played the soprano saxophone with a rare individuality and strength of purpose. Although inspired by Sidney Bechet and Johnny Hodges in his youth, he never sounded like anyone else. His music was thoughtful, yet passionate; orderly, yet spontaneous; controlled, yet unpredictable. On record or in person (I was lucky enough to hear him about eight times), his music is and was always inspiring.

Early in his career, Lacy played dixieland/mainstream jazz. He has said that he was accepted by the veteran musicians he played with because he posed no threat - no one else was playing soprano sax, so he couldn't take anyone's job. An encounter with the young Cecil Taylor changed his direction; Cecil asked him "What's a young man like you doing playing this old music?" He sooned joined Taylor's band, and for the rest of his career pursuing music "on the brink," as he said.

I discovered Steve Lacy's music by accident. As a teenager learning about jazz, I bought a reissue of Gil Evan's Gil Evans and Ten album. The major soloist was a soprano saxophone player I had never heard of; my first reaction was disappointment that someone more famous didn't take most of the solos. His solos, however, were amazing improvised constructions, and they swung like hell. I started investigating Lacy's music, which was not easy in the 1970s - he was living abroad and recorded mostly for small, obscure labels. I remember finding Mal Waldron's One-Upmanship album, on which Lacy is given featured billing and on which he contributes some amazing solos. Other discoveries followed, like the fact the Lacy regularly performed and recorded as a solo (unaccompanied) soprano saxophonist. For a jazz player, this might seem like a sideline activity, but I think that my "desert island" Lacy recording would either be either 5 X Monk, 5 X Lacy or Live at Unity Temple, both solo CDs.

Lacy discovered the music of Thelonious Monk as a young man, and devoted himself to mastering it. He recorded numerous albums devoted wholly or partly to Monk's tunes. He even talked himself into Monk's band for a short period. In his maturity, he mastered all of Monk's compositions, even those which Monk had recorded once and never played again. But Lacy was just as adept at totally unstructured free improvisation as he was at meeting the complex demands of Monk's music.

Other favorite Steve Lacy albums:

Evidence (1961, with Don Cherry) Possibly his finest early album. His soprano just soars through four Monk tunes and one each by Ellington and Strayhorn.
Disposability (1965) From his Italian sojourn, this album shows Lacy turning the corner from Monk and Cecil Taylor tunes to free improvisation. And it has his first recorded composition.
The Door (1988) From his one major-label stint (RCA), this is my favorite album by Lacy's long-lived sextet.
Steve Lacy Meets Steve Potts (1994) This is a rare, limited-edition promotional EP featuring two duets with his longtime saxophone partner.

I hate to stop there, but with the two unaccompanied solo albums listed above, that's half a dozen. You can't go wrong with any of them. Long live the music of Steve Lacy.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ken Colyer

Today I listened to Ken Colyer's Jazzmen On Tour (GHB), a 1965 album by British trumpeter (or cornetist, more likely) Ken Colyer, with Sammy Rimington on clarinet. I really enjoy Colyer and this band. Of all the European traditional jazz musicians, Colyer was the most faithful to New Orleans traditions; he played a straightforward lead with few solos.

But why would anyone listen to Ken Colyer when he/she could be listening to actual New Orleans musicians? Why listen to a copy rather than to the original? The quality of Colyer's music provides one answer - whoever made this music, whenever it was recorded, under whatever circumstances, it's just good music. Another answer is that Colyer and Rimington don't sound just like Bunk Johnson and George Lewis. The influences are there, but they sound like themselves. Rimington has more technical facility than Lewis, for example. And finally, what New Orleans band in 1965 would be playing "Kinklets," "Swipsey Cakewalk," and "Working Man Blues?" Unfortunately, by 1965 most New Orleans jazz performances used a narrow range of material, which gave rise to strings of solos on every tune. Colyer's band used mostly ensemble playing. Colyer and his guys are playing excellent, relaxed New Orleans jazz, even if none of them were from NOLA.

Ken Colyer also presented the world with one of the first issued recordings of the New Orleans brass band style, with his 1957 Omega Brass Band recordings, which came out on a 10" LP on British Decca. Only the Bunk Johnson, Zenith, and Eureka Brass Bands made it onto records sooner. I think I'll go listen to that album now.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Hello There, Universe

Okay, first of all, the title is from the song of the same name by Mose Allison. It's not meant to be too pretentious.

Well, here we go - another blog that doesn't matter in the larger scheme of things. I resisted for a long time. The closest I've had to an outlet like this has been the long, probably boring, emails that I send my friend Rob. After a mostly sleepless night last night, I decided to start this blog and make it available to a few friends, as well as anyone who comes across it.

I'll keep in mind Duke Ellington's implied advice/warning from his introduction to Stanley Dance's The World of Duke Ellington: "I'm sure he has not revealed more than he ought!"

Music I like: Mose Allison. Back when I was a teenager, the woman who would later become my first mother-in-law gave me a double-album jazz anthology of the Atlantic label. Among other wonderful music, it contained "Your Mind is on Vacation," from Mose Allison's first Atlantic album. I like the song right away, but it was only about two years ago that I picked up a CD copy of The Best of Mose Allison at a used CD store. This was a collection of some the best stuff he recorded for Atlantic. I found myself coming back to this CD over and over - it had such great songs as "I Don't Worry About a Thing ('Cause Nothing's Going to Be All Right)" and "Stop the World." After about six months, I wanted more, started collecting other Mose albums, and eventually passed on the Best CD to Rob. I just picked up a vinyl copy of Lessons in Living, Mose's set from the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival, and I'm really looking forward to hearing it. It doesn't have any songs I don't have on other recordings, but I'll bet this excellent band turns out good versions of them.

Mose is an excellent jazz pianist - equally influenced by the Mississippi blues he grew up with and by Bartok and probably Nat Cole - but he is mostly known for his songs. They are witty, sometimes sarcastic, but sometimes cut pretty deep. A couple of my favorites are "Ever Since the World Ended" and "How Much Truth." If you've never heard Allison, you should start with the Atlantic Best of or his classic album I Don't Worry About a Thing.

My better half and I heard Mose, along with Larry Coryell and a local rhythm section, at Jazz Alley in Seattle a week ago. Mose, who is 80, came out looking like a slightly more well-groomed Willie Nelson. His voice was a little shaky, but it's never been strong, so no loss there. My favorite song of the evening was his 1983 look at his career, "Getting There:" "I'm not discouraged, but I'm getting there." He also did his version of "You Are My Sunshine," with chords and melody altered to bring out the meaning of the lyrics. It's the only version of this song I've ever liked. Coryell's opening solo set was mixed - he did a beautiful version of Gershwin's "They Can't Take That Away From Me," but he also did "Black Orpheus" (does the world need another version of this?) and a technically impressive, but pretty pompous and vapid variation on Ravel's "Bolero." Karen liked the latter, though, so maybe I'm just being picky. I forgave Larry for everything, though, when he sat in for the second half of Mose's set. His playing was just perfect, even on songs that he obviously had never played before and was feeling his way through. He filled in at the right times, stayed out of the way at the right times, and played some great, bluesy solos. A very enjoyable, even inspiring, evening.

Don't think I don't appreciate your sage advice.
Don't think I haven't noticed
How you put me down so nice.

"What's With You" - Mose Allison