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